October 31, 2006

Blogspot is Back!
After close to a week of Blogspot being down (i.e. censored in China), it's now back up for business! I can still publish posts when it's down, but I can't easily look at other blogs. Now I have to reading to catch up on.
*Update: it seems that Blogspot is 'down' again after being up for half a day. Here's an interesting article about a Chinese official who claimed at a UN summit that the internet is not at all censored in China.

October 30, 2006

Weekend in Beijing...
*I've put up lots of photos on my Yahoo site. If you don't know the address, or you've lost it, send me an email or leave me a comment.
I finally made it to Beijing, and I don't know why I didn't go earlier (maybe the crowds and heat?). According to my trusty Lonely Planet the size of the Municipality of Beijing is larger than all of Belgium, and there are at least 7 million more people in Beijing! One bus I took was so crowded (fill the bus to overflowing, then push in 10 more people) that there was no need to hold the hand rail. If the bus were to roll, we'd stay right where we were standing.
Around 7:30 on Saturday morning I headed out on a tour to the Ming Tombs (十三陵) and the Great Wall. There were three Spanish on the group who spoke some English but understood French (so I translated), and an Austrian girl studying in Wuhan with her father. Later in the evening, I quite randomly ran into the two of them by Tian'anmen of all places. The tomb was quite interesting and the guide did a great job of explaining things. We had a few 'factory tours', aka buy our products, and ate lunch before heading to the wall.
We visited the Great Wall at Juyongguan (居庸关), which was a strategically important pass because it's so close to Beijing. I didn't realize until after, but if you've seen the TV show The Amazing Race, I went where the contestants went this season.
It was less crowded than I expected, and I'm glad I didn't climb it in the middle of the summer heat. The views were really beautiful, and it's crazy to think that you're actually walking on the Great Wall of China. OK, I know where I was had been renovated, but still.
Back in Beijing I decided to walk from my hostel (which actually had toilet paper -a rarity in Chinese bathrooms) to Tian'anmen. It was about a 45 minute walk, but the evening was warm and there were people on the street playing cards, talking, fishing in the moat, etc. I ended up buying some postcards from a lady out front of the Forbidden City. We chatted in Chinese a bit (I was having a good Mandarin day), and I ended up buying a Chinese-English version of Mao's collected works. I'm in China for a year and she gave me a good price, how could I not?
I kept walking, went through a short tunnel, and realized that I had walked into Tian'anmen Square (天安门广场) with the portrait of Mao right above my head. It was really quite amazing to see the square for the first time.
Sunday morning I headed to the Summer Palace (颐和园) and Kunming Lake, which were packed with tour groups. It was gorgeous, but I didn't really enjoy it with the people everywhere pushing and shouting. I'll have to go back very early one day.
In Mandarin class last year, we learned about XiangShan (香山) and the red leaves that you can see in autumn. I decided to head there, since it was also in the far northwest of Beijing. Big mistake. Me and tens of thousands of Chinese (I only saw three other foreigners) wanted to see these famous red fall leaves. First you walk through a gauntlet of shops trying to see you any and everything. There are cars trying to drive down the lane, and people everywhere. The photo shows one tiny section of the path to the ticket booth. Luckily I've learned how to 'line up' Chinese style, though I was pretty exhausted by the time I got my ticket.
I didn't really see any red leaves, though I didn't go far enough into the park I guess because I didn't have enough time. But I did get to see the Azure Cloud Temple (碧云寺) which was really impressive.
I really enjoyed Beijing, and I'll have to go back to see some more of it. Not to mention the food and bargain hunting/shopping.

October 29, 2006

No Daylight Savings...
One nice thing about China is that they don't have Daylight Savings. Although you don't get an extra hour of sleep in the fall, you also don't lose an hour in the spring. Apparently they tried it for a couple of years, but it didn't go over too well so they scrapped it. All the better I think.
Beijing stories and photos to appear shortly!

October 27, 2006

Off to Beijing!
Beijing, the capital city of the most populous country in the world, is only 90 minutes by train from my city. Despite being in China now for two months I haven't made it yet. But I'm off to Beijing this afternoon! I bought a ticket and made a reservation at the Lostus Hostel, recommended by a travelling friend when I was in Xi'an, which is near BeiHai park just north of the Forbidden City. I'm hoping to make it to the Great Wall on Saturday (it's an all day trip, and I want to go before I have to hike up in the dead of a -20C winter). I'll only have time to see a fraction of the city this time, but I've still got the whole rest of the winter to explore the ins and outs of Beijing.

October 25, 2006

Chinese Hair Cut...
I hadn't had my hair cut in over two months, so it was about time. I put off the inevitable for a few weeks and asked around to find a decent place to get my hair cut. Somewhere they wouldn't just put a bowl on my head and cut. A Chinese friend recommended me a good place, along a street that several other people had mentioned.
A quick rinse was followed by a lot of snipping and hair falling everywhere. It looked like a normal cut, and the girl rinsed my hair out after. The lady at the desk charged me 20Yuan ($3.00), which I'm sure is the foreigner rate because I know that students get a cut for 5-8Yuan, and a normal cut is 10-15Yuan. Even a Chinese friend said that I probably got charged the foreigner price. I should have negotiated before hand. Live and learn.
But today the hair isn't falling right. I've got wings, the back is too long, and my sideburns are uneven -all of which I've tried to fix slightly. Now I know why two of the 15 male foreigners have just shaved their heads. As one of them said, "they just don't know how to cut hair that's a bit curly or wavy". Maybe I'll just let my hair grow long this year?

October 22, 2006

On the weekend I bought myself a dizi (笛子), a traditional Chinese bamboo flute. I thought that it might be good to give me something to do in my spare time, and at the same time learn a Chinese instrument. It was quite cheap actually, and I got a book (in Chinese) that teaches you how to play and gives a lot of simple melodies. The Chinese system of music notation is quite different from in the West. Instead of the notes (A, B, C, D, etc) they have numbers -1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7- to represent the different notes, and dots above or below the notes to indicate the octave. The numbers are written all on one line, with dashes and lines to represent the length of time that you hold each note. Now I just have to learn how to play more than three notes, and how to get the bamboo membrane attached to the second hole.
If you want to hear what it sounds like, here's a few free sample songs, and here's some info if you want to learn how to play.

October 19, 2006

Living in China is Like...
One of my favourite China blogs is TalkTalk China, which posts some of the best, and most comical blog posts. Their most recent post is entitled "Living in China is like...", where people are allowed to leave their comments. A few of my favourite responses are:
-Shopping those insanely chaotic crowded sales the day after Christmas/Thanksgiving…on acid.
-Living in china is realising how much you really are a misfit in this world, and realising that doubting your sanity is a good thing to do!
-Watching a badly ripped DVD where the sound, picture and subtitles don’t quite match.
-Dying and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and realizing it’s actually a picture of Mao.
-Groundhog day. You have the same conversations day after day.
Do you have any to add...?

October 16, 2006

Yi, Er, San, Si...
Every day at my school the students have group exercises in the morning. They all line up and do a set routine to some military type music, which is actually quite catchy. The photo only shows about 1/3 of the students at the front of the school. The yard in the back of the school is full of students as well. Just imagine 5000 students, some with more and some with less enthusiasm, doing exercises all at the same time. It's quite impressive.

October 13, 2006

Going Postal...
One thing that makes China interesting, is that everyday things in Canada end up being adventures in China. Let's take buying stamps for an international letter for example.
On Monday I decided to buy some stamps to mail two letters to Canada. I figured this would be relatively easy since I had a standard sized letter, and I wrote the address in English with the Chinese characters for Canada beside it. I walked to the China Post branch closest to my school, in the outskirts of the city, figuring they would be able to help me. I was probably the first foreigner ever to step foot in there, despite the large poster on the wall telling people how to correctly address a letter to their friend in Kansas (no joke).
When the guy saw that the letter was going to Canada, he had to call someone at the main office. Then he weighed the letter, and flipped through a book looking for something. He said he only had slow mail, so I asked how long it would take to get to Canada. He didn't know so he called somebody at the main office. After mumbling something, and not giving me an answer, I asked again. Normally I don't have so much trouble understanding people -I think he was speaking the local dialect because all of his words sounded funny. After calling the main branch a third time, a couple came in who could speak some English. It turned out I had to go to a larger China Post branch, since he didn't have enough stamps!
Tuesday morning I went to what I thought was a branch of China Post, but which turned out to be China Post Savings (same logo and colours). The lady told me to go down the street a bit, and sure enough a few doors down was another China Post. The only problem is that this branch contained wedding photos that were being put up on the wall. I guess it had recently been sold, but the sign hadn't been removed yet. The lady pointed me towards another branch of China Post, beside the train station.
Bingo! I was able to understand the Mandarin, they had large enough stamps to send my letter abroad, and they stamped it with 'Par Avion'. The lady could even tell me that it should take 8-10 days to get there. Now I just have to wait to see if they get there or not...

October 10, 2006

Chinese/Canadian Thanksgiving...
Yesterday, October 9th, was Thanksgiving in Canada. Being in China, they don't celebrate Thanksgiving, although they all know that we eat turkey and pumpkin pie. Anyway, we were able to get most of the Canadians from Baoding together for Beijing Duck (北京烤鸭).
There were seven of us, so we decided to get the fanciest and most expensive duck that we could, as well as a few other dishes as well. The duck was excellent. They start by showing you the whole cooked duck (in the photo), then slicing off some of the crispy skin. Next comes slices of meat that you wrap up with a sauce and shallots and eat like tacos, before a dish that looks like stuffing made with duck and veggies in sesame buns. My second favourite part of the duck was the crispy bones, which have some meat and some seasonings on it. They put the head of the duck, sliced in two, in the middle of the table. There wasn't much meat in it.

October 08, 2006

*I've broken my trip into three parts (Xi'an, Luoyang, Xi'an) for easier reading. I've put up a lot of photos (including a bunch with me in them) on my yahoo page. Let me know if you want the site address.

Part 1...
After taking a 12hour ride in a hard sleeper from Baoding to Xi'an (西安), I arrived on National Day (Oct. 1), at 6:30 in the morning. Luckily someone from the youth hostel was there to pick me up, or I'd probably have gotten lost in the crowd outside of the train station. The youth hostel was really nice, in a traditional Chinese building, and the staff were great. When I came back from Luoyang they remembered my name, and welcomed me back! I would highly recommend it if you're travelling to Xi'an (and no, I'm not getting commission).
I met up with Gary (a Chinese friend from here in Baoding) and his girlfriend Kitten in the afternoon, and we had lunch in the Muslim quarter before wandering through some of the lanes and doing some shopping. I got one of those name chops that I've always wanted, as well as some other touristy things. At first I wasn't so fond of the bargaining, but I love it now. When you realise that the vendors expect you to bargain and enjoy it (especially when the foreigner speaks some Chinese), it's quite fun. It's also interesting to hear the different prices quoted, depending on if you're Chinese, a foreigner who can speak some Chinese, or if you're fresh off the plane.
My second day in Xi'an was a crazy 12hour tour of the Eastern sites, including some museum, LiShan (骊山), the Tomb of Qin ShiHuang (秦始皇陵), a museum where they guess what his mausoleum might look like, a "Jade Museum", the famed Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑), and finally Huaqing Pool (华清池). We spent more time in the "Jade Museum" than anywhere else, excluding the warriors. We were told that it was a special museum only for Chinese, and not foreigners -quite strange since the lady quoted us prices for pearls in US Dollars!
I had heard mixed reviews of the Warriors, but I loved them. I've wanted to see them ever since I learned about them in elementary school, so it was really cool. They had a museum off to the side, which had an exhibit about the creation of the museum. A museum about a museum?
One great thing about travelling is the people you meet. As happened most nights in Xi'an I stayed up much later than I had planned to, chatting with fellow travellers. They often have interesting stories, and good advice about what to see or skip. For the National Holiday and for the Moon Festival the youth hostel showed us how to make fried pumpkin cakes (南瓜饼), which were pretty good.
Part 2...
After two nights in Xi'an I headed to Luoyang (洛阳) for two nights to check out the Longmen Caves (龙门石窟), which are a UN World Heritage Site (like the Terracotta Warriors). The train ride was on a very hard seat, but the young couple sitting across from me were great. They bought me some noodles, and even gave me a little gift before helping me find my hostel (and avoiding all the touts at the station). I tried to get there as early as I could, since I knew it would be very busy and hot in the afternoon. Turns out that arriving at 8:30AM isn't early enough. As you can see from the photo taken on the opposite bank of the river, the place was literally flooded with tourists. The caves come in all sizes, from tiny to massive. The carving started around 494AD and continued for at least another 200 years.
The other side of the river contained more caves, a temple, and a garden with overpriced tea. It was really a beautiful site, despite the number of sculptures that have been robbed over the years.
After the caves I headed to another famous Buddhist site. The White Horse Temple (白马寺) is the location of the first Buddhist temple in China. It was founded during the Han Dynasty when court emissaries met two Indian monks in Afghanistan and brought sutras and sculptures back to China. Of course the original temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, but it's still interesting to see.
We weren't supposed to take photos inside the various temples. I spent some time talking with the two 70 year old ladies who were volunteering in one of the temples. We chatted for quite a while in my broken Mandarin. We were soon joined by one of the monks and then another. They said that I could take a photo or two if I waited until the tour group left (there's photos of us on my yahoo photo page). It was really amazing how much we were able to communicate. When I said I should get going for dinner, the two ladies and one of their friends came with me on the bus to their stop. They insisted that I try some of their delicious steamed buns (one bun became two, which became four and an apple). It's moments like that which make the trips incredibly memorable.
Part 3...
I was excited to be back in Xi'an, although it was a bit strange too. There were a lot of foreigners at the tourist sites I went to (yes, I know I'm also a foreigner). I will admit that when there was a big tour group with a lot of tall, blonde haired Dutch I couldn't help but stare until I noticed a group of Chinese girls taking photos of them. Have I been here too long already?
The first place I went to in the morning was the Drum Tower (鼓楼), which is in the centre of the city. They had a short musical perfomance of some drumming, which was really cool. The drums used to keep time in the evening, which the bells kept time during the day.
I did a little more shopping before going to the South Gate (南门,城墙). After paying admission, I climbed up on the wall which goes around the whole old city (about 14km I think). It gives you a different view of the city, and it's cool to see some of the old ramparts.
I went to the Forest of Steles (碑林), which was a bit disappointing. There weren't too many English translations which made it difficult to understand most of the calligraphy. Later in the evening I headed up the Bell Tower (钟楼) to check out the city in the evening. They had another musical performance (3 traditional songs followed by Auld Lang Syne).
My train out of Xi'an left the next day at 21:15, so I had the whole rest of my last day to wander around. I checked out the Temple of the Eight Immortals (八仙庵), the largest Taoist temple in Xi'an.
I met up with some friends from the hostel, and we headed out for the famous local Mutton Stew (羊肉泡馍). After more shopping (notice a theme here?), we went to the Great Mosque (大清真寺), one of the largest mosques in China. It was a quiet break from the hustle and bustle around the outside of the mosque. Of course, as soon as we left, we were accosted by a number of vendors who were just waiting for us to exit. It's almost comical. A few of us headed to the Shaanxi History Museum (陕西历史博物馆), which was quite interesting despite the whole room devoted to mirrors.
I decided it was time to have my coffee -the first real coffee I'd have in about seven weeks. Seven weeks! That's a long time. I will say without hesitation that it was worth all 10kuai. The hard seat back to Baoding was a bit like hell frozen over -they crank the AC so that everyone freezes. You can't really sleep because there's not enough room and the whole train is packed (try going to the bathroom, haha!). The seats are full, and the aisles are packed full of people and all manner of luggage.
But I made it back OK, and I start back with teaching English tomorrow morning, bright and early.

October 06, 2006

Almost the end...
It's almost the end of my week-long vacation. I made it to Luoyang for two days, and now I'm back in Xi'an before I leave tomorrow night on a hard seat back to Baoding. There's much to write about, and lots of photos to put up when I can get them off my camera on Sunday.

October 02, 2006

I've now been in Xi'an for two days, and I'm having a great time. Yesterday I met up with some Chinese friends from Baoding who are in Xi'an, and we walked around town, bought some souvenirs (great to have a Chinese friend who can get you a much better deal!). We went to a Muslim place for lunch, having a famous soup dish from this area (Yangrou Paomo).
Today I went on a tour of the Terracotta Warriors, as well as a whole bunch of other sites in the area. I'll have to write more when I get back, and post some photos too.