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!

Its been busy ‘round these parts

The past couple weeks have consisted of midterms on midterms. Nobody likes a test, especially one in a language you really only vaguely understand. So, needless to say its been busy ‘round these parts. In addition to midterms, Alliance students have all been planning our independent travel itineraries. Since I switched into to study robot mode, Matthew took on all of the travel plans…which I greatly appreciated, because planning travel here stresses me out. We both wanted to get out of the city for a while and take in some fresh air, so we’re headed out to Guangxi and Yunnan provinces for the week. Next time you hear from me, I’m sure I’ll be an experienced mountain-climbing rice farmer. Of course, you might not hear from me again if I decide to live out the rest of my life in a hot spring. 

So, I’m (very) happy to say again: Zaijian Shanghai! 

Shanghai Marriage Market. I think this is what life would be like if online dating didn’t exist. Basically parents post a flier of their unmarried child’s credentials here and lounge around the park until someone takes interest. Matthew tried to pimp out his roommate with moderate success, update to come if it works out. 

Eating Dog and Visiting the Doctor in China

Believe it or not, the two activities are not at all related. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bad karma from trying dog meat caused some future visit to the doctor. I only tried one bite, I swear. Since I’ve been in China I’ve become a much more adventurous eater. Octopus noodles? Sure! Jew’s ear? I’ll try it. But let’s get to the interesting stuff, right?

How did the dog taste, you ask? I would say its pretty comparable to beef, but it was a lot fattier and somewhat stringy. Maybe it depends on the breed of dog you’re sampling? Who knows. We ordered what literally translates to “mixed dog meat.” I’m not sure if this implies the dog was some sort of mixed breed, we got multiple parts of the dog, or we received a mix of several dogs’ meat. I’m not actually sure I want to know. You got me this time, Chinese-style Korean restaurant. 

Before I left for China, my friend’s dad told me explicitly not to get hurt because Chinese medical care is (according to him) a real mess. Well, sorry Gary! During my trip to Qinghai, I somehow managed to contract an infection on my finger. I put off going to see a doctor for as long as possible, but after a week of no improvement I thought it might be necessary. Luckily part of the fee for my abroad program is to pay for overseas medical insurance, so I was completely covered to see a doctor. Chinese medical care was the opposite of what I expected. The office I went to was located in a ritzy little shopping center near People’s Square, everyone spoke perfect English, and my doctor was German. I was seen 10 or so minutes earlier than my appointment time, and only had to wait about 2 minutes for my doctor to come in. He asked me a few questions, checked out my infection, prescribed me some medicine, and we went our separate ways. It kind of felt how medical care should be (take notes America?). 

JUST STUFF IT IN!

Woah! Hey there vaguely inappropriate blog title, how you doin’?

But in all seriousness, this is highly descriptive of my experience traveling to Qinghai Province for a week and then to Beijing for the Chinese National Holiday. For example, before we left for Qinghai, we were advised not to check a bag at the airport. How does one pack more than a weeks worth of warm clothes and daily necessities into a carry-on bag? Just stuff it in! (same goes for the laundry afterwards….) How does one experience a completely different kind of Chinese culture in just over a week? Just stuff it in! How does one see all Beijing has to offer in 4 days? Just stuff it in! Alright, I’m pretty over using ‘one’ as a subject for a while. Seriously though, seeing and doing everything I wanted to during our study trip and short holiday was next to impossible, and I am exhausted. Instead of writing out a detailed itinerary, I’m going to try to hit most of the highlights. 

1. Minorities in China

Qinghai is the only place in China where I’ve felt the difference between China’s minority populations and Han Chinese people. Much of Qinghai is made up of minorities including Tibetans and Chinese Muslims. And while I’ve notices some differences between Chinese people in the two major Chinese cities I’ve been to now, Qinghai is the only place where I’ve felt surrounded by a different kind of Chinese people, and it was really cool. The clothing, food, and way of approaching life are all much different even in Xining, a large (by American standards) city in Qinghai. 

2. Monasteries 

At times it felt like you wouldn’t be able to throw a rock in Qinghai without hitting a monastery. Don’t get me wrong, monasteries are really beautiful and an important and cool part of Tibetan/Buddhist/Chinese culture. But I am most definitely monastery-ed out. There’s only so much I can appreciate about something I barely understand, maybe with more time and knowledge and a smaller group of people I could really enjoy a tour of rural monasteries…(can you sense my shifty eyes? I’m not convinced). Maybe it was the monk that almost ran me over in a BMW? Or all of the iMessaging in Tibetan the monks were doing, but something seemed to be amiss in many of the temples/monasteries/stupas we went to. Though its probably because we didn’t have much of a chance to get off the beaten path. 

3. Kickin’ it with Nomads

One super cool outing we all took as a group (all 30 of us) was to pop a squat with some nomads in their cool-weather residence and experience a bit of what they eat and drink on a day-to-day basis. It was an interesting experience to say the least. Milk tea (made with yak milk) with optional add-ins of yak butter and yak cheese! Practically Starbucks, who am I kidding?  Let me take a little detour and tell you, this cheese was not your garden-variety Kraft American singles, nor was it a tasty, sharp European cheese. This was crack your teeth, scrunch your eyebrows, “huh?” cheese. If stale grape nuts tasted tangy, I would call them yak cheese. The weird part was, all mixed together, it was actually pretty delicious. From the yak milk/butter/cheese tea we were able to take a type of flour and make a snack called “tsampa”. If I didn’t know what it was made of, I would swear on my life it was healthy, diet food. We enjoyed this with our, what is directly translated as “old yogurt”. No, I’m not sure what it was or how it was made, but I’m assuming it was another yak product. Mmm, yak. The whole experience was pretty amazing. 

4. Mountain Climbin’, Sand Dune Conquerin’, Yak Ridin’, Lake Swimmin’, Tomfoolery and Such

If you know anything about Qinghai, you know its breath-taking. At several points during our tour of the province we stopped to take hikes or just admire the scenery. From the Yellow River, to a temple on top of a mountain, to grasslands, to sand dunes, to Qinghai lake, we had an amazing experience to enjoy some of China’s most beautiful landscapes. Also, I rode a yak. Briefly. A bit strange considering I ate bits and pieces of what may have been a friend of his throughout the trip. On another note, bars and such in Qinghai are a lot of fun because they don’t get many Westerners out that way! One place we went to served us some complimentary food to show their hospitality. I’ll take it! 

5. Mutton

If you don’t like mutton, don’t come to Qinghai. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but most of the meat eaten in the province is sad, old sheep. Can you tell that I’m a little bitter about it? Qinghai will never be my favorite food-place. 

6. Thanka Painting

Google it. There is so much more to know than I could ever explain about it, but this is a super cool type of art. 

7. Beijing

Beijing is just a cool city. In an effort to keep this post semi-short I’ll make another post for some pictures of Beijing.