Thursday, September 10, 2009

Moving to China

I started a new blog for my China trip. It seems like the thing to do to have a dedicated trip blog, and I thought I'd see what all the fuss is about over at Wordpress. You can find me here. Wordpress, Blogger, and many other sites are currently blocked in China, and I had to subscribe to a VPN service to access them, so please don't use my real name in comments or links to the blog. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Well, what to write about now? I can't believe it took me seven months to finish "blogging" my China trip. Here's a highlights reel of what I missed blogging about while I was transcribing my travel journal entries (or, more properly, procrastinating on transcribing my journal entries):

I went to the Bay Area for a conference, visited some people, and went to a wedding. Obama got elected. I turned 29 and resolved to make a point of doing adventurous things in my last year as a 20-something. I dressed as an elf for Santarchy and threw myself a party. I went home for the holidays, spent some quality time with my grandmother's awesome cat, and decided to try to woo one of the tame backyard cats into living in the house, a project that proved more difficult than expected. I achieved Silver Preferred status on USAir, a privilege I have yet to take advantage of. Obama got inaugurated; I, G.R., and at least a million other people were there. K got accepted to a graduate program in global health and decided she wants to move to Virginia. A good friend from my Ithaca days moved to DC; several friends left. Many people I know got laid off; some got new jobs, and others decided that freelancing is the way to go. I started a vegetarian cooking club. Three co-workers had babies. My brother got engaged. I applied for many jobs, interviewed for a few, and was offered none. I got my first cavity. I started another summer Chinese class. Oh, and I decided to move to China.

That's right: just when you thought you might be able to read about something other than China in this space, I've decided that now is a good time to move to China. After nearly three years in DC I'm ready for a new adventure, and my experience in October showed me that if I'm highly unlikely to realize my longtime goal of becoming fluent in Mandarin if I stay here. No, I don't have a job there, and no, I don't want to move without one, so I'm thinking August is the earliest I'll be able to make this happen. But I'm about 95% sure at this point that I'm China-bound.

Oh, and if anyone knows someone in need of a sweet summer sublet in DC, send them my way.

Monday, May 25, 2009


[Written on October 5]

Arrived on the afternoon of the third, and have felt overwhelmed to some extent since my plane rolled up to the gate, The journey was about as comfortable as a 13-hour flight in coach can be; I think I'm a fan of Air Canada. The difficult part was getting up at 3:30 am to catch a plane to Toronto, only to wait in the airport for five hours.

I left the Beijing airport on an impressive high-speed train and transferred to the subway with no problems. I have only myself to blame for the series of unfortunate events that commenced once I got off the subway, since I had forgotten to print the confirmation email I received when I made my hostel reservation, or even to read it closely enough to realize that the hostel I thought I was reserving at no longer existed. Apparently the Beijing Gongti hostel had been kicked out of the Worker's Stadium and reincarnated as the Golden Pineapple Hostel somewhere nearby.

But I was not to learn this until I checked my email the next evening. At the time, I tried relying on Lonely Planet, signs near the Worker's Stadium (on these the hostel still existed), and asking people who worked around the stadium, not one of whom had ever heard of the place. Most of them were determined to help me, though, which led to much wasted time. one exceptionally kind woman, who spoke not a word of English, led me at my request to a shop to use the telephone. the phone was in use, so she took me to a second shop, where I tried calling the hostel--no answer. Then she discussed my predicament at length with other shop patrons. Then we went back to the stadium park, and I pointed out to her on the map at the gate where the hostel was supposed to be. I'm pretty sure she didn't understand this, just as I understood next to nothing she said, except when she commented that finding this hostel was really not easy. I agreed wholeheartedly.

Then she explained her plan, which I understood not at all, but it seemed easier to follow her than to try harder to extricate myself from her leadership. I'd tried to extricate myself already, thanking her when we arrived at the shop with the phone, and trying to explain afterward that I was just going to go back to the park and look some more, but to no avail.

The new plan took us out of the park, past restaurants that included an Outback Steakhouse, and far away. I felt increasingly desperate as we grew further from the stadium, with its signs that assured me the hostel was right there, but I was strangely resigned to my fate. The intense physical discomfort that came with wandering Beijing with a pack hardly had meaning anymore.

After 10 minutes or so we came to a sort of shopping center, where my guide looked at the list of businesses. Of course, the hostel wasn't on it. I'd been holding out hope that she was leading me to an alternative hostel, but this was clearly not the case. She asked an older couple walking by about the hostel, and everyone looked at the map in my Lonely Planet book for the umpteenth time that night. The old couple pointed out the obvious, which was that this hostel was by the stadium.

We started back. In an effort to avoid walking and regain some measure of control over my own destiny, I hailed a cab. I tried to offer my guide a lift, since presumably she was returning to the stadium grounds as well, but she probably didn't understand where I was going, and didn't get in. The driver didn't understand either, and dropped me off a few blocks later. But at least I'd saved a few blocks of walking.

I went back to the park and looked some more, until it truly seemed impossible that this hostel existed. Then I went to a hotel I'd seen while we were on our way to the shop with the phone. It cost more than twice what I'd have paid at the illusory hostel, but that was still only about $50. To say it was worth it would be an understatement.

My first Chinese lesson: Be careful whom you ask for help.

About the photograph: No, I did not open the 25 yuan package on my hotel nightstand to see how the vibrating condom worked. Anyone who knows is encouraged to comment (anonymously, if necessary).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Beijing: Day one

I woke up early--I'd slept in short spurts all night long--and set off in search of another Lonely Planet-recommended hostel in the neighborhood. This one seemed to have ceased to exist as well, but I'd seen signs for another hostel the night before, and this one I eventually found. I moved, then set out for the Forbidden City and Tiannanmen Square.

The square was still decorated for the Olympics--I enjoyed seeing the Olympic mascots miming various sports. Lines of soldiers marched purposefully here and there, and Mao's portrait beamed down benevolently on us all.

I worked my way into the Forbidden City eventually and was suitably impressed. Apart from the main courtyards, my favorite parts were the exhibits of various treasures, like the empress's hair pins.

My tired feet and the subway bore me back to a street near the hostel, where I had my first real meal in China, a tofu-vegetable dish from which I carefully removed the pork.

My hunger sated, I felt overwhelmingly sleepy and had to force myself to check email and read for a few hours before passing out at around 8:00.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Beijing: Day two

Went to the Lama Temple, where there were many people praying among clouds of incense. Was strangely underwhelmed until I wandered into an exhibit of sculptures of strange, Indian-looking gods.

It was raining a little. I walked around nearby hutongs for a bit, then down an important street past a Ming-era center of Confucian learning. I feasted at a somewhat pricey vegetarian buffet on the same street; though it was obviously geared toward tourists, I took comfort from the fact that most of the tourists were Chinese.

It had occurred to me while I was at the Lama Temple that I wasn't really in the traveling mindset yet. And why not? Maybe because I hadn't seen anything really surprising yet, with the possible exception of Beijing's sparkling subway system. I needed to find something weird.
After lunch I set out to buy a ticket for a kung fu show, another wild goose chase I won't go into other than that I finally did find the Chaoyang Culture Center, it apparently no longer hosts kung fu shows. Clearly the Beijing described in my Lonely Planet--published in spring 2007--was not the Beijing of October 2008.

I caught a taxi to the Pearl Market next and tried out my haggling skills on a windbreaker. The experience taught me that my haggling skills needed work.
I didn't stay at the Pearl Market for long--not weird enough, and it seemed sensible to leave the shopping to the end of my trip. So I crossed the pedestrian bridge and entered the park surrounding the Temple of Heavenly Peace.

There for the first time, I felt myself really getting in to the traveling groove. People were singing in a huge group; others were playing a game with ping pong paddles but no table; down a little further people were playing instruments; further still, there were women with red spangled scarves around their waists dancing to recorded music. In more secluded spots among the trees people stretched and practiced tai chi. It was lovely and strange.

I wandered the park until dark. A sign claimed that some of the cypresses in the park (the park where the emperors used to come to pray for big harvests) were 800 years old. Here's a country Americans tend to think of as recklessly destroying its environment, yet in the heart of Beijing it's harbored trees through several dynasties and foreign invasions, a civil war, Communism, the Cultural Revolution, capitalism, and the city's famously polluted air.

At dark I headed to the famous snack street, but skipped the fried bugs on sticks--the weirdest thing I ate was fried ice cream on toast. The area the snack market is in seems like Beijing's answer to Times Square. In fact many parts of Beijing--those that I saw, anyway--were bigger, newer, and cleaner than the nicest parts of American cities.
After snack street I turned in early once again, but this time with good reason: My bus to the Great Wall was to leave at 6:30 am the next day.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The wall

On October 6 I went to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall with a bus bull of backpackers who'd booked the trip through our various hostels. It was a 3-hour drive each way to this less-trafficked section of the wall. We walked from there to the Simatai site, 10 km away. It was great to breathe fresh air again and see the wall, and it was a perfect sunny day. But it was another essentially unsurprising activity.

Back in Beijing I collected my backpack from the hostel and headed to the train station. I'd booked a ticket through my hostel, and only "hard seat" class spots were still available--the hostel worker explained that this was because people were returning home after the October 1 holiday week. When I'd read about hard seat in books about China I'd pictured a bench, but these were actually lightly-padded seats with non-reclining backs. I fell asleep almost immediately, and slept for much of the 12-hour trip, but woke up with quite a sore neck.

Terra cotta warriors

It was foggy and rainy in Shaanxi province. I'd made a reservation for once, and got a shuttle from the station to the hostel. Feeling like a new woman after a shower and breakfast, I set out to buy my next train ticket and see the terra cotta warriors. I managed to use my Chinese to buy a "hard sleeper" ticket for the next day, and left the train station feeling quite proud of myself, even though I was to leave at 13:20 instead of in the evening, as I would have preferred.

I walked in front of the train station looking for the shuttle bus to the warriors museum. There were huge puddles everywhere and I accidentally stepped in a few, wetting my feet through my sturdy hiking shoes. But I didn't wander long before a bus conductor saw me and pointed out the bus to me. I'd ridden a taxi to the train station and bough a ticket in Chinese, then found the correct bus, all in 20 minutes or so--my confidence in my travel skills was beginning to return.

I'd seen the warriors museum on the Travel Channel just a few months before, so it seemed an unlikely candidate for a site that would surprise me. But I found the warriors' expressive faces and broken, jumbled bodies (in the partly-excavated sections) strangely moving, as if they were real people who'd been interred here alive. In fact they do represent the exquisite life's work of countless nameless artisans, buried pointlessly for milennia thanks to an emperor's delusion of immortality.

After a few hours with the warriors I took the bus back to the city. It was about 6:00 when I arrived, and cold. I was very hungry. I walked down a major street for awhile without seeing anything remotely appealing, then spotted a restaurant on a side street. It didn't look like the kind of place that got many waiguoren, but I went in anyway.

One of the waitresses opened the door for me and asked how many people I was. This seems to be a mandatory question at restaurants in China, even when, as then, there's no one else around. I don't know whether it's an immutable rule that it must be asked, or if people are simply incredulous that anyone would go to a restaurant alone.

My apprehensions were confirmed when I got the menu: It had no English, no pinyin, and no pictures. The waitress patiently awaited my order as I whipped out my tiny dictionary, but clearly nether it nor I were up to the task of decoding that enormous menu. I decided to throw myself on the mercy of the waitress, even though she hadn't understood me the first time I asked for tea.

In Chinese, I explained that I don't eat meat, that I like vegetables and tofu and mushrooms. She aksed whether I liked spicy food, and I said no. There were other questions that I tried to guess at and muddle through. I said yes to rice.

And voila! A dish of tofu, mushrooms, onions, and peppers appeared a few minutes later, sans meat, with rice. I was incredibly awkward in Chinese, but maybe I could get by after all, I thought.

I turned in early again. This time my excuse was that I'd been on a train the night before. Besides, if I was to leave at midday, I wanted to get an early start.


I got a reasonably early start on the 8th, though I was slowed by some difficulty finding breakfast. I was determined not to eat in my hostel, on the grounds that it was overpriced, smokey, and too backpacker-y. But the coffee shop I found wasn't open yet, and street food just wasn't as ubiquitous as I'd expected. So... I settled for toast and scrambled eggs in the hostel next door, which turned out to be much prettier than mine. At least my quest led me through a strip of park that runs along the outside of the city wall, where early risers were socializing and exercising.

After breakfast I ascended the city wall at the South Gate and rented a rickety bike, then jounced in a rectangle around the central part of town. It's an impressive wall in terms of size, condition, and pretty sentry buildings and watch towers, but once you've seen one strip of it, you've seen it all. It was interesting to get a look at the slums, since I'd only seen the nicer parts of Xi'an to that point.

I used all 100 minutes of my bike rental to get all the way around (it was a long wall, and a rickety bike), then got a taxi to the town's big, ancient mosque. It was a very Chinese-looking mosque complex, and though it looked to be in good condition it had a dusty patina, which I liked. I was disappointed that only worshipers were allowed in the prayer hall, though I understood it.

Short on time, I stopped at several tiny shops in the Muslim quarter for provisions: several pieces of bread, some unidentified fruit, a preserved egg, pastries. I got a taxi back to the hostel, collected my backpack, and took a taxi to the train station.

Yes, I took a lot of taxis in China. It's lazy, but it's hard to justify trying to brave the bus system when someone will drive me where I want to go for a little over a dollar. I am on vacation. But taxis don't solve every problem: The drivers don't speak English, have never heard of my hostel, and didn't understand it I try to tell them the address. A Lonely Planet map (with street names in pinyin and characters) means nothing to them. So I coped by telling them a landmark near where I want to go, then walking. Eventually I started painstakingly copying addresses from Lonely Planet onto a small piece of paper, which they seemed to understand better than my spoken Chinese.

The 16-hour train ride was uneventful and fairly comfortable, with one scenic mountainous stretch before it got dark. I think there was meat in one of the pastries I'd bought, but the others were good. The dried fruit turned out to be crabapples, I thought--I couldn't remember ever having eaten a crabapple, so I couldn't be sure. The preserved egg tasted ok, but looked black and gelatinous and had a chemical smell. When I got to the yolk it was slimy, and I actually gagged. I threw the rest away.

I woke up sometime after 4:00 am and found the other three passengers from my compartment gone. I worried that I'd missed Chengdu, and stayed awake to make sure I wouldn't, if I hadn't already. In fact the conductor would have woken me up; she'd collected my ticket earlier, carefully folded it three ways, and pu7t it in a pocket in a book, handing me a plastic rectangle with my car and compartment numbers. This ritual was repeated in reverse shortly before arrival.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chengdu by bike

The train pulled into Chengdu at 5:30 am. At the taxi stand I was besieged with offers of a ride, but didn't realize the touts weren't official taxi drivers, but freelancers. One told me he'd take me to the Wenshu Temple (which was supposed to be near my hostel) for Y40, which I knew was ridiculous. I settled on Y15 with another, only to discover that his "taxi" was a motorcycle. No way was I getting on a motorbike at 5:30 am in a strange city, particularly not with my pack. I got to the temple in a real taxi for Y10.

I found the hostel with no problem, but there found my punishment for changing my lodging plans while on the train (choking on fumes, I'd decided it was critical to find a nonsmoker-friendly establishment). A sign informed me that the hostel had relocated, but notes were thoughtfully provided to direct taxi drivers to the new place. Sticking to the path of least resistance, I took a taxi to the new place. This turned out to be a good choice: Sim's Cozy Guesthouse is an oasis, cheap but comfortable and clean, with all the services a weary budget traveller could ask for.

I showered, breakfasted, and bought a plane ticket to Lijiang to leave Sunday evening. I bought a map and rented a bike and went back to the Wenshu Temple, which I explored thoroughly before feasting in its vegetarian restaurant. Then I walked along the streets in front of the temple, which are picturesque and touristy.

An old man with a smooth, friendly face and a cowboy hat stopped me on the sidewalk and asked where I was from. He told me he would give me an American history lesson. His strong accent and many missing teeth made it a hard lesson to understand, but the gist was that in 1943 Roosevelt sent airmen to Chengdu to fight the Japanese. People walking by turned to look at us curiously. The old man asked me where I was going in China, and made a comment about Xi'an that I didn't understand. Then he said goodbye.

I pedaled south to the giant Mao statue and admired the new subway station in the square in front of him. The next stop was the thatched cottage of Du Fu, a Tang dynasty poet. His actual cottage is long gone, but hundreds of years ago an admirer built a new cottage in the same area, and subsequent dynasties have maintained and added to the cottage. Not a bad way to venerate someone, I suppose.

This was clearly a major tourist attraction, and I was impressed that the Chinese had so much love for their poets. The only equivalent I could think of in the Anglophone world is Stratford-on-Avon. I resolved to read some of Du Fu's work back in the States.

I stopped in at the site's tea garden and was reading when a man came by my table and asked whether I was English. American was good enough--"you speak English, anyway." He was an overweight man in his 50s with a Chinese woman. She was well-dressed with fashionable glasses, perhaps 20 years younger than him. He asked me whether this was my first time in China and what I thought of it, and I said it was great but overwhelming, which was the prelude he needed to launch into a near-monologue about how China is better than England because it's cheaper and the people are friendlier and the women are "superior" to English women, because they won't argue with you. Also Chinese is the hardest language for English speakers to learn, but when he gets back to England he's going to put "her" into an English class, because it's much easier for a Chinese woman to speak English. "They're quite clever, you know. They're not as stupid as we think." I wondered whether my nodding could be taken as agreement that I thought the Chinese were stupid, or that they actually were clever. When he talked about liking women who won't argue I did say something like, "If that's what you're into," but I'm not one to pick fights with strangers in tea houses.

I watched him waddle off with his mail-order bride, or whatever she was, after they'd showed me their electronic translators (his black, hers pink and white), and marveled that anyone could be so obliviously offensive. But his colonial outlook seemed so anachronistic in the China I saw that I couldn't get worked up about it, but somewhat grossed out.

I headed back toward the hostel post-tea, but managed to get a little lost. I think it took about an hour and a half to get there. Given my now-vast experience with bicycling in China, I will here record some principles:

  1. Adopt an unshakable Zen mindset. Take nothing personally, and let nothing startle you.
  2. American ideas about right-of-way mean nothing. Pay attention to red and green lights, but treat them as suggestions.
  3. If you see an opening, take it.
  4. If you and another person go for the same opening, the one in the smaller vehicle yields. Bikes yield to everything but pedestrians.
  5. Keep in mind that there's safety in numbers. Do as the other bikes do.

Another early night. China overstimulated me with sensory information and with the depth of my own non-understanding. It also overwhelmed me with people, which might be why I became so introverted there. That day I was also having doubts about what I was accomplishing by traveling, doubts I'd had before. Since I can only hope to gain the most superficial understanding of a culture by wandering through a country for a bit, unable to speak the language, what's the point? I might as well be going around on a tour bus collecting pictures of myself with the Great Wall and the Tower of Pisa, or better yet, home watching the Travel Channel.

Yet the world still beckons. A superficial first-hand understanding seems superior to mere research.


From Chengdu I took a day trip to Sanxingdui, a site perhaps an hour away via two fuses. It's two museum buildings on the site of a 20-year-old archaeological dig. There's a very impressing collection of pottery, jade, and bronze artifacts that are like nothing that's been unearthed anywhere else, as far as I could glean from the exhibits. I spent a few hours there, fascinated.

Back at the Chengdu bus station I headed for a nearby monastery to try to get a late lunch at its vegetarian restaurant, which Lonely Planet claimed was open until 3:30. I arrived at 3:15 to find it shuttered. I was famished but took a walk around the monastery anyway (it's called Zhaojue). Nice place, but all the monasteries were beginning to look much alike by now. This one was distinguished by an ugly concrete pond full of small turtles. I'd never seen a higher concentration of turtles outside of a Dr. Seuss book.

Two giggling girls, perhaps 13 years old, ran to to me and asked a question, holding up a camera. I nodded, assuming they wanted me to take their picture, but of course they wouldn't have chased down the one foreigner in the place for that. The excitedly took turns taking one another's picture with me. Then they were off, with a chorus, of "xiexie, sank you!"

I wasn't sure what to make of this, but the girls were too cute and enthusiastic for me to regret having said yes. I said yes to all future picture requests, so I'm probably immortalized on Chinese Facebook pages as the giant, freckled foreigner with the crooked smile.

Famished, I walked back to the bus station, determined to catch a city bus back to the hostel. But after going to the trouble oflocating the buses, and then the right bus, I discovered that the smallest bill I had was Y50, which I was sure wouldn't fly for a Y1 fare. So I went to the taxi stand. The first taxi I got in rear-ended another car on the way out of the lot. I got out which the driver was talking to the inhabitants of the other car and got into a different taxi. I'm pretty sure that's where I lost my fleece, in the back seat of the unfortunate cab. I liked that fleece. All because I didn't have Y1.

I ate an enormous amount of ostensibly Sichuanese food in the restaurant of Sim's hostel, laid down for a bit, and then went to see a Sichuan opera. It was touristy by excellent, with music and puppeteering and flamboyant costumes and face-changing and fire-spitting. I'd been particularly interested in seeing the acrobatics, which were not what I expected: A pretty young woman laid on her back with her feet in the air and deftly turned and tossed first a pot, then a table, with her feet.

Back at the hostel I turned on CCTV International, China's state-run English station, as I got ready for bed. I'd become somewhat addicted to CCTV, partly for comforting background noise but mostly for its window into the government's perspectives and preoccupations. The brief roundup of the day's new reported that Obama was ahead of McCain by 11 points, which made my jaw drop. It wasthe first election news I'd heard since arriving.