February 28, 2007

New Arrivals...
Two American girls arrived at my school yesterday afternoon and it's nice to have some other English speakers on campus. They were told by the school that they would have 40 students per class, so they were quite surprised when I told them that there were actually 60 to 70 students! Needless to say the school was lying, again.

February 27, 2007

Wish You Get Rich...
A common New Year saying, especially in the south of China, is "恭喜发财" or Gong Xi Fa Cai which means something to the effect of "Wish you get rich". In the West we usually hear it as "Gung Hey Fat Choi", which is actually the Cantonese version.
Here's a music video by Andy Lau, sung in Mandarin, which I've seen on the local buses a few times since I've returned. I don't claim that it's a great music video, just interesting to watch this time of year.

After you've heard it once, you can click on this link to try the KTV (karaoke) version of the song.

February 26, 2007

Random (Tourist Vendor) Conversation...
When I was in Shanghai, Marie and I were looking for some Shanghai postcards. Now in most cities in China little ladies, for some reason they're usually very short, come running up to you every few minutes pulling postcards out of their fanny packs trying to sell them at over-inflated tourist prices which you then bargain down. For some reason that didn't happen in Shanghai, so we had to go to the touristy area to look for some postcards amidst the same tourist stuff you see in every tourist city in China.
A vendor (V) comes out of his 'antique' store and starts talking with Marie (M)...
V: Happy New Year! You want to look in store?
M: Happy New Year, no thank you.
V: Special price for you lady!
M: Special price for me? But only today.
V: Yes, special price only for you today!
Me: Do I get a special price only for me only today too?
V: You are the first customer this year (keep in mind it's four days after the New Year), so I give you special price.
M: Ah, I get special price (as we glance at another vendors trinkets).
V: I spent 2,000Yuan on fireworks for New Years, so you should buy something from me.
M: That's nice.
V: And today the gods come down, so I spend another 2,000Yuan on fireworks.
M: That's nice, do I get a special price?
V: Yes, special price only today because the gods are coming.

February 24, 2007

Random Text Message...
I got a random text message the other day, from an unknown number. It's not from a number or person that I know because I've saved every phone number I've been given, including people that have left because I'm too lazy to delete them from my phone. The text goes like this:

Hello what are you doing ?i am the student of hebei university:-)

Never mind that Hebei University has tens of thousands, they are the student of Hebei University. If you're reading this post, please send me a text with your name or an indication of where we met. Cheers.
While looking for the exact number of students at HeDa I found out that one of the faculty has discovered 103 species of locust and that "his way of categorizing the locust is among the most advanced in the world". Who knew there were so many species of locust?!

February 23, 2007

I just got back to Baoding yesterday from a few days in Shanghai. I had tried to buy a train ticket from Guangzhou to Shanghai, but everything was full up so I had to settle for a plane ticket. Luckily I crossed the border into China fairly early in the day because I got a text message saying that my flight had been cancelled and they had to reschedule it. Unfortunately Chinese cell phones didn't seem to have reception in Hong Kong, but I still had time to rush to the airport and hop on an earlier flight to Shanghai.
I didn't rush around in Shanghai and try to see a lot of things, though I did see the famous sites as well as the bottom of a lot of coffee cups and the inside of a number of pastry shops. On my first full day in Shanghai I went to the YuYuan Garden, which is a beautiful but overpriced Ming Garden. I also ended up seeing the site of the "first" CCP National Congress in XinTianDi. I put "first" in quotations because according to Chinese history the first congress was in 1921 while Mao was present, but according to Russian sources who set up the congress the first meeting was actually in 1920 and Mao was not present. A bit of revisionism.
The next morning I went to the Shanghai Museum, another museum much better than the National Museum in Tian'anmen Square. I met Marie at the train station in the afternoon, a French foreign teacher I know from Baoding who had just got in from two weeks in Tibet. That evening was Chinese New Year's Eve so we went to meet up with some Italian girls that I had met the day before at the gardens, and I ended up seeing a girl from my hostel in Hong Kong. It was insanity outside at midnight. Fireworks and firecrackers were literally exploding everywhere -roofs, between skyscrapers, in the middle of the road, and even out apartment windows. There were so many that the streets filled with smoke and you could hardly see anything.
The next morning we decided to check out a Buddhist temple, since we knew there would be no dragon dances like back home in Chinatown. That wasn't the best idea since the Jade Buddha Temple was literally swarming with people. We had to wait in a long line, with people trying to cut in front of us and scalpers selling tickets at two to three times the price, before we could snake our way through the temple. People would piously bow three times in front of each Buddha, then they'd push you out of their way as they rushed to the next statue. It didn't feel so much religious as a thing they had to do to have good luck and get money for the New Year. It was tiring enough that we spent the rest of the day in a cafe.
The next day we checked out the Bund and Pudong as well as Nanjing Road. The Bund is a cool section of Shanghai where the old colonial buildings of the various Western Occupying Forces have actually been preserved. Pudong is the opposite side of the river, with the famous Oriental Pearl Tower, which has been recently built up. It's interesting to note that before Westerners got a piece of Shanghai in 1842 it was little more than a sleepy fishing village.
During our time in Shanghai we also made it to the former French Concession (though none of the Shanghaiese we asked knew what we were talking about) as well as the Shanghai Art Museum. It was really interesting to see the old and new contrasting in Shanghai. The city looks like the typical scene from a Western movie version of China -huge skyscrapers with little houses that have laundry hanging from the windows.
I must admit that I prefer Beijing to Shanghai, but it was great to spend some time relaxing in Shanghai before heading back north again. The city feels the most American of all the cities in China I've visited. I can't quite put my finger on it but I know a lot of people have said the same thing.

February 22, 2007

Hong Kong II...
Some travellers that I had met in Yangshuo highly recommended that I check out some of the ethnic minority villages in the New Territories of Hong Kong (the part that was leased for 99 years to the British which cause the talks leading to the handover of Hong Kong back to Mainland China in 1997). Since I hadn't actually been able to see many minorities in either Yunnan or Guangxi despite having learned about them, I thought it would be quite interesting to see one of the old Hakka walled villages. Out in the New Territories I found Kat Hing Wai, a village that was founded in the 1600's by the Tang clan which I've heard is Hakka, but according to Wikipedia is Punti.
The wall around the village was pretty old, but the houses inside were very modern and crammed close together. Wandering through the little village I checked out the familial shrine, the narrow alleys, and the rat poison alert posters. It was quite interesting to see a very different side of Hong Kong.
There are quite a few differences between Hong Kong and the Mainland of China, starting with the fact that the people of Hong Kong seem to be proud they are not from the Mainland. The people in Hong Kong are much more polite, and I'm not just talking about the fact that they don't spit. There were two people who bumped into my by accident on different days, and they both apologized to me (I did check my pockets, but I hadn't heard of theft from any other travellers, also unlike the Mainland). People also line up for the bus, they don't 'huddle'. All of the public bathrooms had toilet paper, seat toilets, and soap! At the Big Buddha on Lantau Island the bathroom played the music "Joy to the World" and had friendly reminders in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English to wash your hands for hygenic reasons. That would probably also explain why the Hong Kong money is so clean and doesn't smell.
Apart from all the cultural and politeness differences, you can also see a difference in the temples. On the Mainland you have to pay to enter every temple, and the temples are almost treated like museums. If the temple has monks, they often act as the ticket sellers and collectors. But in Hong Kong the temples are free, and the people at the temple are actually praying.
On my last full day in Hong Kong I visited the Hong Kong Museum of History, which was free because it was a Wednesday. I thought it was a good idea to go while it was free, but so did at least 16 bus loads of primary school kids. It was an excellent museum with interesting exhibits. Another Chinese museum that puts the National Museum in Beijing to shame. Just before lunch I boarded the Star Ferry which crosses the harbour from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island itself, which is where all the famous skyscrapers are. Seeing all of them crowding out the sun certainly makes the word skyscraper make sense. There are skyscrapers everywhere, and yet a lot of them are in interesting designs which makes them interesting to look at and not just lumps of concrete and glass.
I really enjoyed Hong Kong, though I didn't enjoy the Hong Kong prices while I'm earning Chinese RenMinBi (People's Money). It's a fascinating mix of East and West which I think can be summed up by the uniquely Hong Kong drink of "yuen yeung", a mix of milk tea and coffee which doesn't sound good but which I really enjoyed.

February 19, 2007

Hong Kong...
I caught the ferry from Macau to Hong Kong, which was a pretty fast and smooth ride despite the choppy waters. When I left Macau they gave me an oval stamp in my passport, and I got a green square one when I entered Hong Kong at Kowloon (JiuLong). It was really nice and warm in Hong Kong, something like 25C. I was actually able to wear a short sleeved shirt which was great.
Since I only had half a day I decided to check out the world's largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha (yes, that's a lot of restrictions) on Lantau Island. I was surprised how long it took to get to the island, but even more so by how much it cost. Many travellers in China had told me how expensive Hong Kong is compared to China but I wasn't expecting it to be so much. Of course everything is relative because when compared to prices back home Hong Kong is still much less expensive.
When I finally got to the bronze Buddha I must admit I was a bit disappointed. It was large, but I've seen bigger, older, and more ornate Buddhas. It was nice, but I think I'd have appreciated it more if it was one of the first ones that I'd seen. The one positive thing is that the temple/Buddha was free, unlike all the temples/Buddhas in China that you have to pay to see. In some sense it's like the temples in China are more 'religious museums' while the ones in Macau and Hong Kong were more for religion itself.
Back in Kowloon I found myself some excellent curry for dinner -one type of food among many I've been missing. Because Hong Kong was a British colony there are a lot of people from other former colonies there, including Indians who make real Indian curry!
In the evening I made my way to the harbour for the world's "Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show" according to Guiness World Records. The show was quite huge, with buildings on both sides of the harbour flashing around lights in sync to synthetic music.
Next installment: how the Hong Kongese are different from the Chinese, a Hakka village, and Hong Kong island itself.

February 18, 2007

Chinese New Year...
Happy Chinese New Year! It's the year of the Golden Pig, not just the Pig, but the Golden Pig! I don't know what that means, but it only happens every 60 years.

I was hoping to see dragon dances and stuff here in Shanghai, but there weren't any that anyone knew of. Instead there were fireworks and firecrackers everywhere. Literally everywhere. They started at 6PM last night and went until 2AM, then they started again at 6AM today and they'll go all day long. Literally everywhere you looked there were fireworks -on the street, between giant skyscrapers, being thrown out apartment windows. Everywhere! It was incredibly loud at midnight, and the streets filled with smoke from all the gunpowder.
I must admit that I wondered how many people in a country of 1.3billion got injured because some people were quite reckless with the fireworks. In some ways walking through the street was like being a soldier in a WWII trench -there was smoke everywhere, coloured lights flashing above the buildings, bangs and pops all around, you never knew where the next one will explode, people shouting, firecrackers that sound like machine guns, and people selling ammunition/firecrackers from every street corner. It was quite something to experience.
In the words of a Chinese lady who shouted at us off the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle "Happy Chinese New Year!"

February 17, 2007

After saying goodbye to Adeline in Guangzhou I headed to Macau, a former Portuguese colony, by bus and was dropped off at the border. Although Macau is part of Greater Mainland China, it is actually a "Special Administrative Region" meaning that it keeps it's distinct governing system for a number of years before reverting fully to Chinese control. It's similar in structure to HongKong, and the two of them make up the SARs. After a long line on the Chinese Customs side to get my exit stamp, I made it through the Macanese border crossing with no problem (and a square, blue stamp in my passport!).
I noticed the differences between China and Macau right away. There were the obvious things like Portuguese on all the signs, the colourful colonial buildings, people driving on the other side of the road, and higher prices. But some of the things were more 'subtle'; things like no spitting, no littering everywhere, no pushing, cafes with good coffee, and a more laid-back atmosphere.
While wandering around the first evening with some fellow travellers we heard some music, and walked towards it. It turned out that there was an outdoor performance for a local street party, with a bunch of tables set up and people drinking red wine (red wine isn't so common in China, and is usually served with ice cubes). We stayed and listened for a while, and even danced a bit when the only home-grown Macanese band (called "Tuna Macaense") got up and played. Their music was Mexicanish with Portuguese lyrics, with a few older rock songs thrown in. I took a short movie clip of the group, so I'll post it when I get back to Baoding.
Because Macau is so small, it was easy to see most of the tourist sites and on Sunday I managed to see four cathedrals, a religious museum, attend part of a Portuguese mass, and visit a seminary all within 90 minutes. I also visited a Buddhist temple on the southern end of the Macau peninsula which was very different from the Chinese Buddhist temples. Firstly, this temple was free while you must pay to enter all of the Buddhist temples in China that I've visited (and that's a lot of temples). The second major difference is that people treated the temple as an actual religious site, and not just as a tourist destination. It's true that there are real Buddhist pilgrims in China, but most of the people in the Chinese temples walk around shooting photos of the incense burners and the monks, if there are any monks.

February 16, 2007

I'm finally getting a chance to post some photos and tales from my travels a week or so ago.
I arrived in Guangzhou at 5:30 in the morning, after an overnight sleeper bus. The bus is for sardines -there are two storeys (luckily I was sleeping on the bottom, because I wouldn't feel that comfortable sleeping on a top bunk on a bus wearing a seat belt), and you sleep on an incline so that your feet are under another person's head. I took a taxi to Adeline's place, and the guard escorted me up to a very sleepy Adeline. I crawled into bed and slept for a few hours. It was nice to finally get some sleep. When I finally woke up I wandered around town a bit, and visited a few tourist sites. Over the two days in Guangzhou I made it to a few temples (yes, I'm almost Buddha-d out, but more on that when I get to HongKong), a cool tomb where you would walk in, a few gardens/parks, and lots of busy streets.
I always find it interesting walking through some of the back streets, just off main roads, and see how people actually live. It's often quite different from the glamorous lives you see on TV or in the movies. In China there is a huge gap between the rich (often ultra rich) and the poor (often dirt poor). There is only a small middle class in China, and almost no social services in China despite calling itself a Socialist country. Yes China is Communist, but it's also incredibly Capitalist.
It was nice to visit with Adeline and Jason, whom I haven't seen for a year and a half now, since I was working in Ottawa. We were able to catch up over a few meals and coffees despite work and touristing. The world really is a small place -you can meet on one continent, call your permanent home in a second continent, then meet again on a third continent. While travelling I've heard many stories of chance meetings and remeetings, and of old friends bumping into each other in random countries. I know it's a cliche, but it's also very true.
I'm in Shanghai now, and the weather isn't as nice as it was in the south of China. It's started to drizzle and it's quite a bit colder; no more short sleeved shirts.
I went to a famous park today, and tried a soup baozi (steamed bun). It's nice just to have an easy day. Tomorrow I think I'll go to the museum, then wander around a bit. Apparently there are a lot of firecrackers tomorrow night, since it's Chinese New Year/Spring Festival Eve. Then everything shuts down on Sunday and Monday. I'm not too sure when I'll head back to Beijing, but probably in the next few days.

February 13, 2007

I'm in Hong Kong right now. It's quite the city -it's China, but it's not China. It's quite expensive, especially compared to China, but it's still quite a bit cheaper than the West when I do the price conversions.
I've done a few of the tourist things, but I've seen big Buddhas, seen night and street markets, seen big buildings. I'm planning to go to Victoria Peak tomorrow night to see the city from above on my last night here.
I've just booked my hostel in Shanghai, for the next leg of my journey. I've only got about 10 more days of travelling before I'll be back in Baoding. I'll have to post more stories and photos when I get a chance.

February 11, 2007

Guangzhou and Macau...
I'm in Macau right now, after spending two days visiting with Adeline in Guangzhou. I'm using the internet at the Tourism Office, so I can't really write much. Macau is a really small but interesting city, and you can see the mix of East and West everywhere. There are lots of old colonial buildings, and remnants of the Portuguese.
I was walking along the street last night and hear some music. It turns out the residents of a street were having an outdoor street party, and we were allowed to join in. I got to hear the only home grown Macanese band (I'll have to post photos later!).

February 06, 2007

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?
I promise I'll give you the real answer by the end of this post.
I went on the touristy cormorant fishing tour last night. You hop on a boat around 8:00PM boat and watch a man go fishing using his cormorant birds and a light bulb. It's a traditional technique that has been used for ages, and although it's mainly for the tourists in Yangshuo, it is still used by some farmers in more remote areas of China. The water was incredibly clear so you could actually see the cormorants swimming, diving, and catching fish under water. When they find a fish, the guy sometimes lets the bird eat it, and sometimes he pulls a rope on their necks so that they can't swallow. He then pulls the bird onto his bamboo raft, then makes the bird spit the fish into a basket. It's quite efficient actually.
Today I went to the village of XingPing, a bit north of Yangshuo. I took a boat cruise along the Li River with another traveller from my hostel, and the scenery was just gorgeous. It was interesting too because just before we got on the boat the lady told us to take out our 20 Yuan bills (if you've got a 20RMB in your pocket, pull it out too). Hold it up to the picture at the right of this paragraph, and you'll see a striking resemblance -this is where the sketch was made for the the back of the bill.
On to the chicken now. When we got back into XingPing we wandered around some of the back lanes, and peered into old houses with old photos of dead relatives, faded posters of Mao, and vegetables drying on the ground. Eventually we ended up in the middle of town, where the market was in full force (it happens every 4 days). All of a sudden I saw a chicken crossing the street. So, why did the chicken cross the road? My guess is that it was to avoid his fellow cage mate's fate. There were of course lots of live chickens and ducks for sale, as well as pots of fresh blood (you can get them to kill the chicken for you if you want) and shaved animal hair beside a pot of boiling stew.
The minibus ride back was equally interesting with the live cat in a bag, drunk man chewing raw sugar cane, chicken on the roof, and TV set on the floor. Not to mention that the bus was overcrowded (as most are in China), and the the people standing in the aisle had to duck when a police car drove by. The dangling photo of Mao from the rear-view mirror didn't help the second time when we quickly pulled into a parking lot on the road into Yangshuo after the driver spotted another police car. The cops followed, came into the minibus to count the people, then took the driver into their car for a chat. The rest of us just walked the 10 minutes back into town.
Tomorrow night I'm taking a 'sleeper' bus to Guangzhou to visit Adeline for a day or two before heading off to HongKong and Macao!

February 05, 2007

Welcome to You (Yangshuo)...
Ah, Yangshuo. It's much prettier than the more famous Guilin, and although it's less touristy, it seems that everything is geared towards tourists. I'm not sure that anyone actually lives here -they're either tourists, or tourist touts. The region draws a lot of backpackers, but also a lot of Chinese tourists. It all adds up to high prices, and a lot of (good) Western food.
The scenery around here is just amazing though, and you can almost touch the peaks from the cafes. You can't walk down the streets of the city without someone shouting "Hallo, you wan poscar?" or some other tourist item. But as soon as you get a bike and head out of town, you can be all alone on some path between a tiny village where no one speaks English, and you see more chickens/buffalo than anything else. It's a nice break from the big cities for a few days.

February 04, 2007

Nanning and Yangshuo...
I had a good overnight trip from Kunming (Yunnan province) to Nanning (Guangxi province) on a hard bed. The car was quite clean, there was no spitting, limited smoking, and the squat toilet was actually usable! The only disturbance was at 4:00AM when two guys got up and started to play music loudly on their phone, and speak loudly in Cantonese. I guess I wasn't the only one who was annoyed because a lady got up and told them in Mandarin to be quiet because we were trying to sleep.
Nanning was quite a nice city, despite the province generally being considered a backwater. It was warm, clean, the streets were lined with palm trees, and there was almost no spitting. I decided to check out the Provincial Museum, since I had a few hours to kill before my train to Guilin. It was actually a nice museum, which holds the worlds largest collection of brass drums. They also had some reconstructions of buildings by ethnic minorities, and an exact copy of the Sultan of Brunei's carriage (in the photo). I also got to watch a few girls practise some dancing for an ethnic minority thing they would do in the evening.
I made it to Guilin after only 5 hours on hard seat, chatting in Putonghua with a few nice people (I find it hard to understand the local spoken language, which is a bit like Mandarin, but quite different).I promptly got ripped off 10RMB in Guilin on the bus ticket, which is better than the 20RMB that the lady tried to get. After I agreed to pay for the ticket, she changed the price, then said she didn't change the price. When I gave the ticket and the change back, she agreed on the lower/original (but still higher by 10RMB) ticket price.
Yangshuo, where I am now, is quite beautiful. The city itself is swarming with tourists and tourist touts -I don't think anyone actually lives here! But the scenery around the area is amazing.
I rented a bike today, and biked for the first time in almost 3 years. I went to one of the 'hills', and paid the entry fee to climb up and look over the peaks. It really takes your breathe away, and I couldn't stop saying 'wow'. Of course, along the way we saw unused rice paddies, bamboo, little bridges, and water buffaloes. My rear tire made a great pop, and started to deflate in a matter of seconds. Luckily it happens quite often, so there are people all along the paths that can repair it for 5RMB ($0.75 CDN). The 'old man' who fixed my wheel, who looked to be at least 70 or 80, was actually 56. I guess it's the sun and all the hard work. It's amazing to see the people here carry such heavy loads on their backs.
I'm not sure what I'll see in the next few days, but there are lots of peaks around here to climb, and it's nice to just relax a bit in a warm city where I don't freeze no matter how many layers of clothes I put on!

February 02, 2007

The Pickpocket...
Yup it happened again, except this time I literally caught the pickpocket red-handed. I was taking the bus back from the Yunnan Nationalities Museum (which is a really good museum, and worth making the 1 hour city bus ride trip out to see), and about to get off at my stop. The guy behind me started to push me, which is quite normal in China as almost everyone pushes all the time. Then he started to push a bit more, and I turned slightly then suddenly felt that my pocket was a lot lighter -luckily my cell phone is cheap, old and heavy! I was almost off the bus and the guy was still pushing me down the stairs but I stopped and swatted at my left pocket. It was empty, so I whipped around and stared at him. I looked down and grabbed my phone out of his hand. I was so shocked that I didn't know what to say, and I couldn't remember "PaShou" (the Chinese for pickpocket), so I just shook my fist at him and glared as hard as I could. I think the people at the bus stop noticed because they all started to look. He made a small sound and shrugged his shoulders as if to say "I don't know how your phone made it into my hand, but I wish you hadn't noticed so that I could steal from you stupid foreigner".
This time though my Chinese friends can't blame it on a kid from XinJiang or some other ethnic minority because I clearly saw that he was Han Chinese in his late 40s.
It's a bit ironic that I was thinking on the bus about how things would be different if I had gone to Japan to work instead. There would be no spitting or nose blowing on the street, it would be cleaner, less pushing, and much safer. You can leave a bag on a chair in Japan and it will still be there when you come back -in China it will be gone in under 5 minutes. It's part of the adventure I could do without.
I'm hiding in the youth hostel drinking a Yunnan coffee until I have to take another bus to the train station (the two most likely places to get pickpocketed).

February 01, 2007

Stone Forest and Ethnic Minorities...
I went to the Stone Forest today, about 120KM southwest of Kunming. Kunming as the "Spring City" because the weather is warm but not hot all year round, but today it was snowing and rather chilly. The forest was quite cool, with lots of interesting rock formations.
Yunnan is the province in China with the most non-Han ethnic groups, which make s for an interesting mix of people. I visited the Yunnan Ethnic Museum in the far south of Kunming, which was an excellent museum often overlooked. They had samples of the various traditional ethnic costumes, information about their traditional practices and housing, etc. They even had a great exhibit about texts written in the various non-Han languages. I tried some Dai food at a small restaurant, which was pretty good. The Dai live close to the Laos/Myanmar border, so their food and written language is heavily influenced by that region. I tried the chicken and sour bamboo shoots, and a type of sweet, sticky rice cooked in bamboo leaves.
Tomorrow night I've got a hard sleeper to Nanning, and from there I'll try to get to Yangshuo (southwest of Guilin) by Saturday evening.