January 30, 2007

Pandas and the Hell Ride...
I went to see the Giant Pandas near Chengdu at the Giant Panda Research Centre, which was really cool. You have to get there early, because they eat in the morning and sleep most of the day to save energy (they can only digest about 4% of the bamboo they consume!) We were able to get fairly close, and see panda cubs, sub-adults, and adult pandas. Definitely recommended.
I just got off the train from Chengdu to Kunming. It was 20 hours of pure, unadulterated, non-fun. I could only get a hard seat, and the seat was hard. Imagine sitting on a piece of wood for 20 hours, and trying to sleep. I had to stand up at least once every 2 hours to be able to feel anything. Sleep didn't come very easily either. Normally I can sleep sitting up decently well, but every 20 to 30 minutes all night long someone would come by with a cart selling something, or the police would shout something into a megaphone, or the baby would cry, or everyone would wake up and start shouting. It wasn't helped by the fact that everyone was spitting, half the people had bad sounding coughs, and that most of the men smoked right underneath the "No Smoking" sign. I'm hoping not to get sick. I know what to expect on a Chinese train, but it was worse than that 12 hour Xi'an to Beijing hard seat.

January 28, 2007

Chengdu, Sichuan, China...
In addition to the Maosoleum in Beijing, I also visited the National Museum of China on the side of Tian'anmen Square. For a country that proclaims 5,000 years of history, language, and culture, I was surprised at the lack-lustre National Museum. I know that the KMT 'stole' a lot of stuff when the moved to the province of Taiwan, but still. There were a few tables and chairs from the Ming and Qing dynasties, and a couple of greenish blue pots. Without English explanations, and minimal Chinese explanation (size, and dynasty), it didn't lead to a very enlightening visit. The best part was the 50 or so national treasures. Still, it wasn't worth the 30Yuan entry price.
I flew with Air China from Beijing to Chengdu, and the flight was good. They served Chinese food with a plastic fork and knife -the 6th time in 5 months that I've used a fork and knife was on a Chinese airline!
It's been warm in Chengdu, at least compared to Baoding. Saturday was a temple and history blitz. First up was Wenshu Temple, which has a cool street in front that is hosting the International Food Festival -Chinese food with one Indian stall. This is where I tried the emu kebabs and the camel kebabs (both really good).
Next was the Green Ram Taoist Monastery. Then the DuFu Thatched Cottage, which was really expensive and I didn't appreciate that much because I haven't learned much about Chinese poetry. Then we went to Wuhou Temple, another Buddhist temple that is famous for its statues of the Shu Kingdom king of the Three Kingdom era. I tried ChenMaPo DouFu at the original restaurant. It's supposed to be quite famous, but I've never heard of it before. Pretty good though.
I was almost Buddha-ed out, but today I went to see the world's largest Buddha in LeShan, about 120km south of Chengdu. We ended up sitting in the bus for an extra two hours because the express way was closed due to 'too much fog'. The Buddha itself was quite impressive -seated, he's 71 metres tall (233ft).
Tomorrow morning I'm going to check out the Panda Research Centre, before I take a 20 hour hard seat overnight Chinese train ride to Kunming.

January 26, 2007

Visiting Mao...
I had a few days to kill in Beijing while I was waiting for my plane to Chengdu so I decided to finally visit Mao in his Maosoleum (sorry, I should say the "Mao Memorial Hall"). He's available to greet visitors from 9:30AM to 11:30AM most of the week (his schedule changes because sometimes he needs to get plastic surgery). The rest of the day he's quite busy -getting his makeup done, getting his face printed on money, posing for portraits, and having Mao suits made. I got in line outside, ready for the big introduction. The police even made people get out of line who had jumped the queue! There were announcements in Chinese and English reminding people not to spit or take photos. They also said we couldn't smoke -I guess Mao has given up on one of his hobbies.
Once on the grounds of the Maosoleum we could buy white chrysanthemums for 3RMB each, to lay at the foot of a grand statue of Mao sitting in a chair and greeting the masses. I'd say at least one in 5 people bought a flower for him. (Do they collect the flowers at the end of the day and resell the good ones the next day?)
We were split into two lines, and allowed to glimpse Mao from both sides, behind two (bullet proof) glass walls. He was rather quiet, though his face had a wonderful glow. He just layed there under a Chinese flag, with his face and part of his Mao suit exposed. His face looked a bit nuclear orange -I think it was the light they used. We all shuffled by in silence, the visit with him over in a matter of seconds.
As soon as we left Mao's greeting chamber we were met with a multitude of vendors inside the Maosoleum (and outside it too). The sold everything Mao -stamps, waving Mao watches, golden Mao plaques, dangling Mao faces on red threads for your car- everything. I didn't see Mao rolling around at the thought of all that Capitalism. Maybe he's come to accept Deng XiaoPing's wisdom. After all, according to the official figures by CITS Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong.
Because I visited in the winter my whole Mao experience -from lining up with a wide cross-section of the Chinese population, to the brief meeting under the watchful eye of the military, to the Capitalist bazaar just behind Mao's office- it only took 20 minutes. I've heard that in the summer you have to wait a lot longer to get into Mao's office for the 15 second visit.

January 24, 2007

I'm Going Places...
With the quick announcement Monday that I was already on vacation for a few days, I thought that I should make a quick get-away too before someone changed their minds. I looked at getting train tickets to the South, but it's a real hassle because everyone and their pet Hello Kitty is going home for the Spring Festival. Imagine how busy the trains are in a developing country of 1.3 billion when everyone wants to go home! That's a lot of people to move.
I checked E-long.net for flights, and they had a sale on for the city I wanted to go to, and for the day I wanted to leave. The ticket with taxes, train to Beijing, and bus to airport will cost as much as a soft sleeper -but the flight is only 2.5 hours instead of 24 hours on a train. Between now and Friday, I'll just chill in Beijing.
The grand scheme is that YoungSuk (a Korean teacher) and I will fly to Chengdu on Friday for a few days (check out the pandas, the tea houses, maybe the world's largest Buddha), then go down to Kunming (capital of Yunnan province, where most of China's ethnic minorities live), before going to see the 'beautiful sceneries' in Guilin and Yangshuo (you know, those rounded mountains shrouded in mist with the water buffalo in front).
From there we'll probably part ways as I head on to Guangzhou to visit Adeline (whom I met in France) and then hopefully onto the East-meets-West of HongKong. Next the plan is to head north and meet Marie (a French prof) in Hangzhou (heaven on earth according to an old Chinese tourist advertisement) or in Shanghai (new China) where we'll hopefully spend Chinese New Year before heading north again.
A whirlwind trip of the South, if things go as planned, but I think I can make it in four weeks. Lots of adventure awaits, I'm sure.

January 23, 2007

Random (Restaurant) Conversation...
Last night in a restaurant I ordered Gong Bao Ji Ding (KungPao Chicken). This conversation happened in Chinese, here's the translation.
Waitress: Would you like it with chicken or pork?
Me: Chicken.
Waitress: We don't have chicken, how about pork?
Me: Uh, OK. Pork then.
Why did she offer chicken if there wasn't any?

January 22, 2007

You're on Vacation, Right Now...
I've been trying to find out when I'm on Spring Festival vacation for over a month now. Nobody knew, ask somebody else. I went again to the Vice Principal today, to get a date nailed down so that I can start making plans and buying tickets.
She makes a phone call and says "The students will be reviewing this week and next, before their exams. So you don't have to teach them anymore. You're on vacation as of now. Where do you think you'll go?"
Yup, I'm on vacation as of 15 minutes ago. Now I'm trying to get things organised so I can leave ASAP before minds get changed. I'm heading to the warm south (at least it'll be warmer than here).

January 20, 2007

You Know You've Been...
I've seen a few of these floating around, and here are a few funny ones that I can relate to. There's another 300 of them posted at ChinaRant.com
You know you have been in China too long when...
- You forget what clean air smells like
- Forks feel funny
- Your eating manners in restaurants are now totally shot. Elbows on tables and spitting food out onto your plate is now seen as being dead classy
- You barely flinch when you see a small child emptying his bowels in the street
- You eat every kind of meat off the bone, and spit the bones on the table
- You draw characters on your hand to make yourself understood
- Grown men and women often say hello to you, and when you reply they run away giggling
- When you go to the toilet you start bringing your own toilet paper
- You can pick up any type of food using just your chopsticks... even peanuts
- You can't decide if you love or hate the country you're living in
- You see nothing wrong with standing on a white stripe in the middle of a highway while cars whiz past you at 90kph
- You don't blink an eye when a complete stranger wants to take a photo of you with his family
- You eat soup with chopsticks
- You use Kleenex for table napkins
- You are accustomed to seeing people's heads popping up and down in the DVD you are watching
- You buy a movie that hasn't been released theatrically yet at home...
- You no longer question why the expiration date on the milk you just bought is two months from now
- You complain about the price of chocolate bars...
- You know which chocolate is real and which chocolate is glorified butter
- When you go to a park and you can't walk on the grass
- The smell of stinky dofu doesn't faze you anymore
- You start to wonder if the chocolate ice cream you find in the store is even chocolate... sure it is brown, but it doesn't taste anything like the stuff back home!
- You point out foreigners to your Chinese friends even though you're foreign yourself
- Other foreigners seem foreign to you
- You know words in Chinese for which you don't know the translation in English
- You pick your nose, burp, fart, and scratch without thinking anything of it
- You call home and your family tell you to speak faster and stop correcting their grammar and pronunciation
- You don't have any idea what something is, but you'll eat it anyway
- You completely ignore most people who say hello to you
- You have a conversation while sidestepping feces, vomit, and mysterious green puddles on the sidewalk without blinking
- You eat cake with chopsticks
- You constantly wonder if everything has been boiled long enough
- You convince yourself that it doesn't matter how dirty the cooks' hands are, cooking will fix it
- You love tofu because there's nothing to spit out and it doesn't have any taste
- You start saying 'play computer' 'I very like' and other assorted chinglish
- You've got a pre-paid ticket with a booked seat for a soft-seat train or plane, but you still run like mad to make sure you get a seat
- Smoking does less harm to your lungs than breathing
- You have absolutely no sense of traffic rules
- You start picking at other people's dinner plates before they even offer you a taste
- You forget that the other person needs to finish speaking before you can start
- You have a pinky fingernail an inch or two long
- You no longer wonder how someone who earns US$ 400.00 per month can drive a Mercedes
- You think that a $7 shirt is a rip-off

January 19, 2007

Random Conversation...
This is another Beijing baozi (包子) story. I was walking down the street in Beijing happily eating my baozi out of a bag with chopsticks (I'm in China, you can do that here) when I heard from a group of three university aged students:
#1: 老外吃饱子! (The foreigner eats baozi!)
#2: 哈哈。 (hehe)
Me: 对,我吃包子。 (Yes, I'm eating baozi.)
#3: 啊,他说了! (Ah, he spoke!)
#2: Hello!
#1: 你好! (Hello!)
Me: 你好。 (Hi.)

January 16, 2007

According to sources (i.e. the China Daily, my source of news in these internet-scarce times) it should take another 2 to 3 weeks to repair the fibre optics cables off Taiwan. The original plan was to have it all fixed by today but judging from the long wait, up to 30 minutes, it takes to read one email there's still some work to be done. According to the paper "crewmen on boats south of Taiwan are dragging the seabed with grappling hooks at the end of long ropes to recover cables about 4,000 meters down in the sea." You can imagine how long it would take!
To get decent internet access, read: slower than dial-up access but better than nothing, I have to get online sometime between 2:30AM and 7:30AM. Any later and I can make and drink an instant coffee while waiting for any non-China webpage to load, if it loads at all.
The slow internet access has certainly made me much more aware of how dependant I've become on it for almost everything -emailing, weather reports, international news, travel advice, etc. It'll be nice when things are "back to normal".

January 15, 2007

30 Million Singles...
I came across an interesting article in the China Daily this weekend about the increasing number of single men in China. With the one child policy a lot of families, especially in the south and in rural areas, prefer to have a male child over a female child. Currently for every 100 female children there are 118.6 males, which may not sound like a lot but spread that over the huge population in China and it becomes greatly magnified. By 2020 it is expected that 30 million males will be unable to find wives (almost the whole population of Canada) due to the imbalance.
That will of course cause a lot of unstability in a country where being married is incredibly important on many levels.
The article goes on to say that China's population should peak in 2033 with a population of 1.5 billion allowing China "to build itself into a well-off society" that "will not be short of manpower". Of course we should ignore the fact that at present up to 60% of university graduates face unemployment and that the north of China is rapidly running out of water which could lead to massive famines. But I'll leave that for another post.
In any case, it'll be an interesting problem for the Chinese government to try to solve.

January 14, 2007

Sweet Taro Pie...

McDonald's in China doesn't have apple pie (at least not in my city), but they do have Sweet Taro Pie! I'm not too sure about the unnatural purple colour, but it did actually taste good. The taro flavour wasn't too pronounced, and the lumpy bits weren't too chewy. The outside was nicely deep fried and still warm when I got it with my cup of hot chocolate.
I'm less curious about trying the green bean pie (I don't like green beans), but I think I'll try the taro root pie again.

January 13, 2007

Circuit Breakers...
For at least the fifth time in two weeks and twice today, my plugs were without power and I had to get the ladies at the front of the building to reset the circuit breakers. Turns out that my plugs can't handle having my computer plugged in and the kettle running at the same time.
Should I mention to them that there's a plug outlet in my shower? How safe can that be?

January 12, 2007

Inspiring Quote...
I've asked my 2,000 students to come up with three New Year's Resolutions as part of an activity this week and next. One of the inspiring resolutions told to me by a student comes as a quote from Comrade Mao:
"Good good study day day up."
I'm going to try to study more Mandarin this year, and this quote is just the inspiration I need to good good study.

January 11, 2007

No Electricity, No Heat, No Hot Water...
I woke up shaking because I was so cold at 5AM yesterday under my three blankets. I went to turn the light on only to find out that there was no electricity. Wonderful. Of course it would have to start snowing to top things off. I mean, why have no electricity, no heat, and no hot water if you can't have a few flakes of snow to enjoy them in.
On the plus side, I didn't have to worry about the food in my fridge rotting!

January 09, 2007

Saying Goodbyes...
I've only been here for 4.5 months, but I've been saying goodbyes already. I'm not going anywhere, but a lot of the foreigners that I've met here are at the end of their 6 month or 1 year contracts/study semesters, so they're heading home or on to another city. There have already been a few goodbyes, with more to come over the next month. It's a shame really, since I know that I'll never see some of the people again. Things aren't helped by the fact that I'm still the only foreigner at my school, way out on the edge of town. Here's hoping that the school finds another foreigner or two for next semester.

January 08, 2007

Mr.Bond Coffee...
In homage to the new James Bond movie, available in China on DVD for over a month now, I thought I'd post a photo of Mr.Bond Coffee.
I know the label is small, but it says:
American pattern
>>I'm young..I'm coffee

Skip the "Bond, James Bond", and go for American pattern young coffee. It wasn't half bad either.

January 06, 2007

Random (Inflation) Conversation...
When I was recently in Beijing I stopped at a small place near the hostel to get some meat baozi (steamed buns filled with meat), which cost 3RMB for one tray. The next day I went back with two friends to get some for breakfast. This time we bought a tray of baozi and one of steamed jiaozi.
Seller: 一共十块钱。 (Altogether it's 10RMB)
Me: 等一下。 这铁包子多少钱? (Wait a second, how much is this tray?)
Seller: 五块钱。 (5RMB)
Me: 哪,昨天是三块钱。 (Yesterday it was 3RMB)
Seller: 什么? (What?)
Me: 昨天这是三块钱。 (Yesterday this was 3RMB)
Seller: 呵呵。 (Haha)
Then he gives us back 2RMB change.

January 05, 2007

Random Emails Continued...
In the last installment of Random Emails you were left wondering if we would have a table inside or outside. Here's the conclusion of the saga, which is even funnier than the first few emails! Of course I don't know the exact words, but they go something like this (as close as I can remember).

If you want a table it will cost you $10,000 United States Dollars.

You must be on drugs Suzie because we don't want to buy the place. I don't think you understand my English. Maybe you should find someone who does.

Sorry, my English is not good. Maybe you can help me to improve it by email? I can reserve a table for you for only 3000RMB. [$450CAD]
Sincerely, Suzie Wong

I will come in before New Years to clear up the misunderstanding.

So on the New Years Eve the law prof goes in the afternoon and pounds on the club door to get in. Playing the stupid foreigner, he's let in by the migrant workers putting up decorations. There was only a single Australian lady sitting at the bar, who obviously hadn't gone home yet. After a minute or two of conversation she offers to call the assistant manager, a friend of hers. Soon another call is made, and the manager is woken up.
It turns out that tickets are only 150RMB each and that we could get them at the door without any problem. Later that evening (or the next morning, since we got there around 1AM), the tickets were 200RMB ($30). They had put a sticker over the original price announcing the new and improved (i.e. higher) price.

January 03, 2007

A Beijing New Years...
I took off for Beijing on Saturday morning, in the snow. There was snow in Beijing, but not nearly as much as here in Baoding.
First on the agenda was a much needed Starbucks Peppermint Mocha, which I've been dreaming about for far too long now (over the weekend I had two of them, as well as a Starbucks cappuccino). We came across a happy SnowMao as we made our way to the Silk Market to check out all the fake/cheap goods. I finally bought the green and brown 'fur' army winter hat that I wanted with (a removable) red star on the front. The starting price was 80RMB, but I got it for 20RMB ($3), which makes you wonder how much it really cost and what a Chinese person could get it for! Dinner was an amazing hamburger, with real cheese and onions! Oh how I've missed my dear friend the hamburger.
The next morning a few of us we headed to the Lama Temple, which was converted from a Prince's residence to a lamasery in 1744. It's the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Beijing, and we had a chance to briefly chat with a monk from Tibet when he blessed a little jade Buddha. According to the sign at the front, the temple had fallen into disrepair until the benevolent Communist Party took control and restored the temple, protecting it "during the 'so-called' Cultural Revolution", and finally opening it to tourists a few years ago.

We got to Tian'anmen Square at 11:45 PM on New Years Eve, and saw a maximum of 200 foreigners in front of Mao's portrait on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. At about 5 minutes to midnight a van of extra police pulled up through the gate (to keep the already present police, soldiers, and undercover cops company). At 3 minutes to midnight the lights were turned off on the gate.
We had our own countdown and the police jumped to attention when the corks on a couple bottles of champagne popped open at midnight. We lit some small sparklers, the kind that kids play with and wave around. I guess the police weren't too happy about that because they came running over and shouted at us to put them out. They kept shouting "Hurry Up!" at us in Chinese until we finally stomped the pathetic sparklers to death.
By 1:00 we made it to Suzie Wong's and paid the inflated price to get in (more on that in another post). We danced until 5:30, got some fries at McDonald's to start off 2007 in style, then got back to the hostel at 7:00AM for two hours of sleep.
We didn't do much the next day, just some wandering around with a coffee and cake break.
On Tuesday morning a few of us headed to the Underground City, constructed between 1969 and 1979 to protect citizens from an attack by the Russians or the Americans. It extends all under Beijing, though most of it is in disrepair now. The guide rushed us through, and wouldn't have told us anything interesting if we didn't ask. Along the route, we walked through a silk shop where we could buy products!
For lunch we decided to head to IKEA and I revelled in the Swedish meatballs
(complete with flag to distinguish them from all those knock-off Swedish meatballs) and fries. I had a chocolate mousse cake for dessert with 3 cups of Swedish coffee. Much needed let me tell you.
It was four pretty intense days of eating Western food (and the occasional Beijing roast duck), drinking coffee, sight seeing, and dancing, but it was worth every Yuan.

January 02, 2007

Happy 2007...
Just thought I'd let you know that I'm back from New Years Eve weekend in Beijing. I'm 1000Yuan lighter, but I had a great time -lots of coffee, cakes, dancing, Western food, and into trouble with the police in Tian'anmen Square on New Years Eve. But more on all of that when I'm not so tired and I've got some photos to put up.