One Week

Even as I write this blog post, I can’t believe I only have one week left in China. There’s still so much I haven’t seen or done. Instead of dwelling on the wish-I-could’ves for this blog post I want to look back on all the things I have done!

1. I’ve traveled in 6 provinces through more than 10 cities and seen countless beautiful scenic spots and cultural landmarks. 

2. I’ve tasted almost every kind of meat you can think of: beef, chicken, pork, fish, rabbit, pigeon, goose, duck, yak, mutton, cat, dog, horse, bullfrog…and a lot of strange vegetables too.

3. I’ve mastered the “asian squat” …Anyone who’s used a squatty-potty knows what I’m talking about.

4. In addition to being able to read and write Chinese fairly well, I can ask for directions and understand them to some extent, order dinner or drinks, and casually converse with my teachers and roommate. On that note, I placed pretty well in a Chinese speech competition and performed a miniature play with my classmates. 

5. I’ve pretty successfully taken care of myself living on my own in a foreign country for 1/3 of a year. 

6. I successfully avoided dying in a tragic traffic accident! I know I’ve written about Chinese traffic before, but being one of three people jammed into the back of two-seater rickshaw (basically a motorcycle with a seating area strapped onto the back of it) has given me an entirely new perspective on the dangers of Chinese traffic. 

7. I’ve made a lot of friends and memories I will never forget, and fallen in love with a foreign place and it’s people. 

Compared with the first few entries I made on this blog, its hard to image myself as the same person who left America all those months ago. I still miss real American desserts (and good ol’ American cheese), though I found some pretty decent cookies at a bakery in Dali, and coffee has proved to be more readily available here than I though it would be, though it’s fairly expensive by Chinese standards. Despite all of this, I’ve found that I like eating giant family-style dishes made with questionable ingredients off of tiny dishes that have been washed and repackaged a thousand times by factories for use in restaurants. I even kind of like the terrible-tasting, cheap beer as long as I’m surrounded by good people.

One week left! Look forward to: final exam, closing ceremony, KTV, saying goodbye, and returning to ‘MERICA. 

Baby Butts, TCM, and Giving Thanks in China

There are few things cuter than a chubby little Chinese baby so bundled up in poofy coats and pants they can hardly walk or put their arms down. At least, there would be few things cuter if that poor baby’s butt wasn’t hanging out of it’s “split pants”. Something I think I’ve yet to really touch on from my time in Shanghai (which is quickly coming to an end), is the prevalence of “split pants” on babies and toddlers in China. The idea itself is pretty practical, you know, split the baby’s pants down the behind and they can “go” whenever they need to, no problem. But in practice, this concept is slightly more than disturbing. You haven’t truly been weirded out by Chinese people until you see a grandma holding a little boy up over the gutter and poking at his bits and pieces to try and make him pee…or poop…or whatever she was going for. Its safe to say this is one Chinese custom I will never be used to. 

A couple weeks ago, Alliance took us on a field trip to experience a bit of traditional Chinese medicine culture. A doctor specializing in Chinese medicine taught us about “balanced” bodies, meridians of energy within ourselves, hot and cold food and their effects on our bodies, and the differences between how Chinese and Western doctors examine and treat patients. Which was neat and all, but then we got to hit each other and needles were brought out, and that’s when the cool stuff started to happen. Apparently, in traditional Chinese medicine culture, if it hurts when you massage something, that’s great! Hit it harder and more often! I would not recommend a traditional Chinese massage. Those of you reading this that know me, know that my knees are…a bit odd. As in, they snap, crackle, and pop like rice crispies every time I bend. I chatted with the good doctor about my problem, and he did his best to fix it. By sticking a needle in my hand, in that fleshy place between your thumb and pointer finger, right where its joining the hand. I’m still not sure exactly how that was supposed to fix it, but I can say that acupuncture is weird. And a little painful. 

Just over a week ago, Thanksgiving came and went in Shanghai without much fuss. Oh, other than meeting the boyfriend’s parents for the first time. In a foreign country. Which was pleasant! Not surprisingly (surprisingly?), they’re a lot like him. We took a jaunt out to an Italian restaurant downtown, ate pizza and pasta and gave thanks in the most out of the ordinary way I’ve ever done it.

With only a couple weeks left here in Shanghai, I’m half thankful its almost over and half depressed about it. I’ve said it before, but I like China so much more than I ever thought I would. The people are friendly, the scenery is beautiful, and the food is cheap. What more could a hungry Midwestern girl want? (cheese, cookies, and coffee, but you can’t be too picky, right?)

I know my blog has been eerily silent through the holiday week, but rest assured dear readers, I was busy doing blog-worthy things. Look forward to a post about our program outing to a traditional Chinese medicine workshop (I got acupunctured), meeting the boyfriend’s parents and celebrating Thanksgiving in China. This past weekend Alliance took all of us out to Hangzhou to experience a little bit of paradise. It was a bit rainy and cold, but still pretty beautiful.

Chinese people love “old” stuff

Something I’ve noticed since coming to China is that China’s domestic tourism industry is BOOMIN’. Which is great for the Chinese, but the really puzzling thing is that despite all of the truly beautiful scenery and historic things China does have to offer, Chinese people tend to flock to the recently renovated made-to-look-old places that have been completely commercialized and no longer hold any semblance of cultural heritage. I know this isn’t the same across the board, but from what I’ve seen for every 1000 Chinese tourists, you’ll find 1 or 2 off the beaten path. 

I can’t figure out why, but this love of “old” places full of shops that all sell the same goods and fully equipped with every fast food option possible has held true in most of the places I’ve been able to check out in China. The prime example of this is Lijiang’s “Old Town”, a place full of hokey antique-style architecture where every shop sells the same goods and even the “ethnic dancers” have a boom box blasting synth-heavy music. Shanghai has a similar “Old Town” full of tourist attractions and Dairy Queens. Even in Qinghai, one of China’s poorer provinces, the most crowded place we went was a temple outside of Xining, one of Qinghai’s largest cities, where the monks drove BMWs and texted each other with iPhones. The “out of the way” temples we visited were all basically deserted. 

I’m not sure what it is about “old” stuff Chinese people seem to like so much, but they sure do love visiting these kinds of places. 

Planes, trains, and automobiles

Looking back on my week of travel in Guangxi and Yunnan now, it seems like it was both incredibly long and incredibly short. Although it must have been long, because I feel like I could write for hours about the things we saw and did in 2 of China’s most famously beautiful provinces (including but not limited to utilizing nearly every means of transportation available on Earth). For the benefit of any potential strangers who have somehow stumbled onto this page, I’ll try not to be too long-winded. 

October 26: Guilin

Almost immediately after our midterm exam, Matthew and I picked up our bags and headed out to the airport to catch our flight to Guilin, Guangxi. Guangxi province is famous for its uniquely-formed mountain ranges and the river that flows through them. Its easy to read that phrase and think to yourself, “neat, I bet that’s pretty.” I know that’s what I thought to myself when I looked up Guangxi province online. I found myself completely unprepared for the way Guilin’s hulking mountains popped into existence from the dark and mist like monstrous sentinels from complete non-existence the moment before. They are breath-taking. 

The city of Guilin itself was fairly underwhelming, but we only spent one night there. Its lit up in all neon, and we happened upon a crowd of elderly people dancing in sync to music that sounded vaguely latin. It felt a lot like an Asian version of Miami. 

October 27-28: Xingping

We woke up in Guilin, and somehow, I’m still not sure exactly how, made it downriver to Xingping by way of 8 different people for one flat rate per person. Saturday morning we wandered onto a beach of the Li River searching for a bamboo raft that would ferry us to Xingping, some 4 or so hours away by boat. The four boatmen we talked to directed us to their boss, who convinced us to take her friend’s bus to Caoping, where we could get on a boat to take us to Xingping. We thought that sounded simple enough, and she offered us a good price so we said yes. So, the boss took us to the bus, we sat on hard stools in the middle isle of the bus for the +1hr ride to Caoping, where we met up with a woman who walked us to a boat. This boat took us to a place called Yangdi, where we, for no reason I could understand, camped out for about a half hour before switching boats. This boat took us to a man on the bank of the river who walked us to a ferry. The ferry took us to the other side of the river where we got in a golf cart that took us into Xingping proper. All of this, for one low, easy payment and about 6 hours of travel time. 

The city of Xingping was beautiful, quiet, and only flooded with tourist (who mostly stay in Yangshuo) during the day, as most of Xingping closes up shop around 8pm. We rode bikes around the countryside to some long-closed caves and ate horse meat (I’ve eaten almost every meat at this point in China: beef, pork, chicken, fish, dog, cat, horse). 

October 29-30: Transit to Lijiang

From Xingping we planned to go to Lijiang in Yunnan province. To get there we took a bus from Xingping to Yangshuo, then another bus from Yangshuo to Nanning, the capital city, for about 8 hours of total travel time. In Nanning we decided to take a 12-hour sleeper train to Kunming. Sleeper trains are…an experience. We didn’t book tickets in time to reserve a soft-sleeper style car, so we we opted for the hard-sleepers. The set up of this type of car is a private(ish) holes though the cart, in which two sets of 3-tier bunk beds are crammed along with a small table for the lowest bunks. If you value your privacy, personal space, or back health…this is an option to be avoided. I wound up cuddled up with my personal belongings in a middle bunk, “sleeping” next to a man with a very unusual manner of snoring. But it was an experience.

We missed our flight from Kunming to Lijiang because our train was late, but realizing it would happen while we were still on board, Matthew was able to secure for us a “certificate of lateness,” whatever that means, from whoever makes the trains run here in good ol’ China. It didn’t do us any good at the airport because we bought our plane tickets on sale (therefore non-refundable), but Matt had a whole bunch of people running around trying to make our lives easier which was a nice change from how that would have gone in America (I can just picture the $3 drink voucher and sincere “I’m sorry” we would have gotten from staff had we been in America). We did eventually arrive in Lijiang on the 30th, a few hundred kuai poorer but altogether very happy to be in one place. 

October 30 - November 2: Lijiang

Lijiang Old Town is a giant tourist trap. Had we not been able to speak Chinese there, resulting in accidentally making some (very friendly) Chinese friends, I would have found the place entirely unappealing. The old town is tiny, made-to-look-antique shop after tiny, made-to-look-antique shop where everyone is selling the same exact stuff, and at night the central area turns into a giant, hokey night club scene. BUT! Our first (exhausted) night there, we wandered into a tea-shop mistaking it for a restaurant because the owners were inside making jiaozi (dumplings). At first they laughed at us for asking to see the menu, but then they invited us in for tea and jiaozi and insisted that we eat, drink, and not pay. Who am I to turn down that kind of hospitality? Matthew took the reins on the conversation, but I could understand most of what was being said, which is a really cool feeling. They talked to us for a long time, and offered to help us arrange cheaper tickets to ride horses up some mountains in a particularly scenic spot just outside the city (side note - everyone down South has connections, seriously…everyone). We excused ourselves after an hour and half or so of conversation, promising to return the next day to make arrangements for the horse riding.

The next day we spent most of the day walking around the Old Town before we realized how frustratingly commercial it was. Afterwards we returned to our friends’ tea shop and made the arrangements to ride horses the next day. Our friends insisted that we come eat dinner at their place, so we took a couple hours of rest at the hostel and returned to what we really hoped would not be more jiaozi. They led us to their shared home, about 6 or so friends lived in these connected buildings around a common courtyard. That dinner was both the coolest and weirdest thing I’ve done so far in China. They had cooked a bunch of dishes, including a giant hunk of meat on bone cooked into a flavorful soup and a bunch of vegetable dishes. The friends referred to each other as “older brother” and “older sister” and chatted with us in Chinese over dinner, while one of the girls urged us to drink and drink and drink beer.

The next day we rode horses, the scenery was beautiful, yada yada. I’ll post pictures that can explain it much better than words ever will. 

November 2-3: Dali

We took another train from Lijiang to Dali, also in Yunnan province. By the time we got here, I was beyond exhausted from all of the traveling, walking, and activities. So we spent most of our time in Dali eating good food, good desserts, and drinking Yunnan coffee in a few of Dali’s countless cafes. And I liked it quite a bit. The scenery around Dali is also really pretty, but I wanted to rest a bit before heading back to Shanghai, so we didn’t do much trekking.

We left Dali on Sunday and bused back to Kunming to catch a late flight back to Shanghai. Getting back to Shanghai felt like coming home. I missed my roommate, the familiar sounds of traffic, and of course…my baozi lady. 

Pictures to come!