Sunday, February 22, 2009

Qingdao and the Train Station Catastrophe

Oh my goodness, what a weekend! A couple of friends and I decided that we wanted to go to the port city of Qingdao for the weekend. We planned to take the overnight train there on Friday night, and a fast train back Sunday afternoon. Naturally, I planned the trip (ensuring that I wouldn't pay too much money) and I set out on Friday morning in my running outfit to go get the train tickets.

I finally arrived at the train station and stood outside in the cold for 15 minutes in line for my tickets. When I got to the front of the line, I tried to order three sleepers (bunks) on the overnight train to Qingdao. The woman told me they only had two sleepers and they wouldn't sell me another ticket. I tried to argue with her, saying I didn't care what the third ticket was, I just needed three tickets to Qingdao. She sent me to another line, and I went through the whole process again. And finally, once I got through the third line, the man sold me the two sleeper tickets - the only two tickets left on the train, and a "no seat" ticket. This meant that while my friends Molly and Cara would have sleepers, I would be sitting in the mysterious "no seat" section of the train.

That night, I gave my bag to Molly and Cara to protect in car 15, where their sleeper bunks were. Molly offered to help me sneak into their car. She promised me that she "would be little spoon" and we would get to share the bunk, and no one would notice. At that point, the idea of sneaking to their car sounded pretty good to me, but when I arrived way back at Car 6, was unceremoniously shoved by the train attendant into the car, and found myself standing in the middle of 150 other Chinese passengers, I realized that sneaking all the way back up to Car 15 would not be an option.

It was hot and crowded, and standing room only. The car is actually a hard seat section, and has three seats on either side of the aisle for people who have "hard seat" tickets, but us unlucky ones who have "no seat" tickets, have to stand in the aisle and wherever we can get a space. I thought to myself that there was absolutely no way I would be able to stand for 9 hours overnight, so as the train attendants managed to weed out a lot of the people without train tickets, I sat down. I put my back up against one row of seats, and my feet under the other row across the aisle. It was cooler, and I didn't take up too much space, so people could just step over my legs if they needed to get somewhere. I sat like that for four hours, and as time went by the men stayed standing and the women found corners of seats and floor spaces to sit on. The old man sitting next to me on his sack of grain finally reached his stop and hoisted the grain over his head and got off.

An old woman sitting a few seats down from me was staring at me intently. It didn't surprise me too much because I was the only white person on the train. She had been listening to music for most of the train ride, and was singing and slapping her knee all by herself. But now she was just staring at me. She yelled out to me and asked what my stop was, which I didn't understand. The girl sitting on the edge of a seat next to me took my ticket and told the old woman I was going to Qingdao, and the woman just nodded her head and smiled at me with her mahogany colored teeth.

Then, a few minutes later, the man sitting next to the woman got up at the stop and left the train. The old woman immediately spread out over the two seats and called out to me "Come over here." Two men standing beside me hoisted me up from the train floor, and I was led by my jacket sleeve through the throngs of people to the open seat the woman had saved for me. As I sat down, baffled, she patted my back and continued listening to her music. I was amazed that everyone else on the train just let me take the seat - no one else even tried to sit down there. I guess they just didn't want to mess with that old woman. About twenty minutes later, she handed me one of the earbuds from her own ear and told me to listen to the music. I listened to weird Chinese music, that she went through and hand picked, for THREE hours. Every time I tried to return her headphones to her, she wouldn't take them, and demanded that I keep listening.

I dozed a little bit, but I didn't really sleep at all that night. There were some men who stood standing the whole nine hours. One man even fell asleep, standing, with his briefcase as his pillow. When the train finally arrived at Qingdao I was so tired that I didn't think I'd be able to fall asleep at the hostel when we got there. Molly and Cara walked over with concern and hesitation as to my potential grumpiness, but I was so happy to be there that I just smiled and gave them hugs, and of course told them about the old woman.

The man from the hostel was standing at the train station with my name on a sign, waiting to drive us up to the hostel. On the way there, we were stopped in the road by a Chinese man and Chinese woman have a huge fight about their cars in the middle of the street. Molly, Cara, and especially I were so tired that we just dumbly watched the fight continue and the yelling get louder. Finally our driver, who was just as engaged in watching the fight, honked his horn and got the two drivers out of the way.

The hostel was amazing. It was China's first modern observatory, and had been abandoned until they bought it and renovated it. The showers are modern and private, the bathrooms are western style and clean, and the beds and linens were very soft and clean. We dropped off our stuff in lockers, and went upstairs. There is a restaurant on top of the hostel, and right beside the dome of the observatory. They made us western style breakfast with fried eggs, warm toast, and sausage. It was wonderful. And the best part for me was the hot, freshly brewed coffee - it was certainly going to get me through the day.

After breakfast we headed out with a map and directions from the people at the hostel. We first walked down to the ocean. The air was warm but the wind from the ocean was really cold and very powerful. It was hard to walk out on the Zhanqiao pier toward the temple at the very end. The water was beautiful, and we could see where the boat races and sailing events from the Olympics were held. Because the tide was out, there were people hunting for oysters on the rocks by the pier.

On the way back, something totally unexpected happened. I saw a woman I recognized walking on the pier with her family. As we passed each other, we kept looking back to see if we really did recognize each other in a city of several million people. It was the crazy old lady from the train!!! I immediately ran back and told her I wanted a picture with her. Cara took a picture with my camera, and all of the woman's family members had their cameras out snapping shots of the two of us. We were hugging and smiling at each other, so amazed that we saw each other again. It was really an amazing experience.

After the pier and walking around the city, admiring the German architecture and eating lunch, we headed back to the hostel so Cara could take a shower and Molly and I could take a nap. Our next stop was the Tsingtao Beer museum and brewery. Tsingtao was founded in Qingdao in the 1900's, when the Germans took over the town as their colonial outpost in China. The history of the brewery follows the history of Qingdao quite well, as the brewery was taken over by the Japanese when they invaded in the 1930's and 1940's, and finally returned to the Chinese after the liberation movement in 1949. The museum was pretty tame, but watching and learning how beer is made is actually pretty interesting. Through the museum they gave us small glasses of raw beer (German style) which tasted pretty yeasty and...interesting. After the whole tour, we were also given freshly brewed Tsingtao beer, which was okay, and definitely part of the experience. The only thing that kind of bothered me was that a couple small children were running around the museum, and each of them got a whole glass of raw beer and a whole glass of regular Tsingtao just like their parents. Starting them young I guess.

After the Tsingtao museum we were all pretty tired, and we headed back to the hostel for dinner and bed. We ate dinner early, and the restaurant on top of the hostel made us Western style chicken and beefsteak sandwiches, which was also very refreshing. Molly couldn't get over how much she had missed mayonnaise and Cara didn't talk much while she devoured her french fries. We relaxed on the roof for a while, looking at the city, checked our email, and went to bed.

On Sunday morning we got up, got dressed, and headed out towards the Guest House. It's official name is the Yingbin hotel, and it was originally the home of the German Governor General, and Mao Zedong and Yuan Shikai have both stayed here in their time.
After the Guest House, we hiked up a hill to the lookout towers that overlook Qingdao on Signal Hill. The views were really beautiful, and the main lookout tower rotates so you can see the whole tower just by sitting in one spot.

After the last of our sightseeing we headed back to the train station and took a fast train back to Beijing. We felt kind of relaxed and rejuvenated just from being on our own, doing things at our own pace, and just enjoying the warmer weather and different scenery. It was a really great trip.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

798 District

On Saturday morning, my program took us to 798 District on the east side of Beijing. The 798 Art District used to be a cluster of state-run factories that ceased production in the 1980's. The Chinese government was going to demolish all the buildings, build by German architects and of significant architectural importance, when the artistic community in Beijing asked to take it over. Now, the 798 Art District (798 is the name of the original factory) is filled with beautiful modern art galleries. The artists who run the galleries also kept a lot of the original architecture and an old train in tact and in the area. It is a really neat place, with cafes and galleries continuing on for about a square mile.

Upon getting on the bus, I was greeted by a graduate student at Beijing University named Donnie. Our professors had thought it a good idea for us to meet language partners so that we could practice our Chinese while the Beida students practiced their English. Donnie was very patient with my broken Chinese, and very excited to tell me places to visit while I'm in China. When we reached 798, our new Chinese friends followed us around the district, admiring artwork with us and telling us about the area and its history. In our group of international students, there were six of us Westerners and three Chinese students. Donnie was a molecular biology major, and I don't think he got as much out of the art exhibits as I did, but he did a good job pretending.

Out of the exhibits I saw, the ones I thought were the most interesting were the "Gods of Destruction" exhibit, the thermometer exhibit, and an exhibit where the artist made huge piles of bubbles and photographed scenes through the bubbles. The Gods of Destruction exhibit are sculptures of four Olympians from the Athens Olympics who were purportedly on steroids. They are all Americans, and they are nude, massive, and in animal form. Marion Jones looks like a bat out of hell, literally. They are in cages and shown above, as is a picture of one of the pieces from the thermometer exhibit.

And of course Saturday was, you guessed it - Valentine's Day. A depressing day for most us, but we decided that all us girls would get dressed up and go for a night on the town. We told the guys that they weren't invited, went out for dinner together, and danced the night away! The boys, it turned out, were not too upset that they weren't invited: two of them went on a date with each other, had a candlelit dinner together at a restaurant with Wifi and skyped their girlfriends while they ate. When we got home, we found red roses on each of our pillows. The boys had went out and bought us all a rose to say Happy Valentine's Day.

The Ice Cream Saga and the Silk Market

After class on Friday, Tala, Ariel, and I decided it was time for some hard core shopping. We headed out towards the metro station, but on the way, we were hit with another painful urge for ice cream. We stumbled into a standard looking westernized restaurant called Big Pizza and ordered three chocolate fudge sundaes. Now, keep in mind that sundaes in Beijing are nothing like chocolate fudge sundaes in the US, but they normally do the trick.

Well, our ice cream extravaganza was doomed. First, the vanilla ice cream was watery. Then, to my unpleasant surprise, a crunchy green leaf of spinach was burrowed somewhere in my sundae. I promptly removed it from my mouth and took a picture of it. Tala found celery in her ice cream, and Ariel was finally too frightened of finding something worse than a vegetable in her sundae that she stopped eating. As I ate my ice cream I noticed a pink tinge on my spoon. Upon further examination my sharp plastic spoon had cut my lip and I was bleeding all over myself.

With the ice cream drama over, we got on the metro and headed to the silk market. It is in a huge building with six floors, and on each floor there is something different to look at. On the first floor there are very real looking Spyder, Columbia and North Face ski jackets and snow pants, along with all the tee shirts you never wanted to buy, and some really pretty dresses and Chinese clothing.

The second floor has scarves. Everywhere. So many scarves that Rachel Welty would just be overwhelmed with opportunity. Some of them are silk, most of them are not, but all of them are cheap. I got a fake Burberry scarf, which makes me look very British, for about five dollars. On the next floor there are shoes and purses. The purses are all really nice, and fake. I bought a real leather, fake Salvatore Ferragauss purse for eight dollars. And then, from the third and fourth floors up, there is jewellery and pearls. The pearls were so beautiful and very cheap. I bought a black pearl necklace and matching earrings for 7 dollars.

In the Silk Market, which I'm sure you've gleaned has very little silk, the sellers are very aggressive. They are almost all young girls a little older than me, and they speak impeccable English. They will yell at you while you walk by their stall "Hey girl, hey sister, want to buy bags?" If you stop in they immediately ask you what you like and demand a starting price. They ask for about a hundred dollars for anything you are looking for at first and than bargain down to a price the two of you agree on. I happen to be quite frugal, and pretty determined, so the prices I got my purse, pearls, and scarf at are not the prices that most people pay. This place is like my mom's heaven.

If you go too low for them they say raise the price a little, and "come on, you're such a beautiful girl. You and I are sisters, why you try to cheat me like this?" If you try to walk away, they will block you in the store or grab your arm to keep you there. It would be scary if I wasn't at least seven inches taller than all of them. But I have to say, it is a little overwhelming to be constantly yelled at and bargained with. It's not something I could do everyday, even if I do like shopping.

Luckily, I had two really fun friends to shop with. Tala is Jordanian, and so she bargains at the markets in Jordan every day to get everything. She barely speaks any Chinese, but she would sidle up next to the stall seller and say, "of course I'm your sister, and I want those boots. Why don't you be my sister and give me a good price?" Her deals were as good as mine, and she didn't have to pretend to walk away to get them. Ariel on the other hand, is way too nice to walk away, and doesn't have Tala's bargaining skills, so she just got manhandled in every stall she went to by eager sellers.

But at the end of the day, we were very satisfied with our purchases, not so satisfied with our ice cream, and seriously thinking about going to bed early.

Though He Is Rich, I Do Not Like Him

Whew! What a week. It was my first full week of classes and I am excited about every one of them. My Chinese professor is really friendly and my professors in Sino-American Relations, History of Modern China, and Chinese Political Reforms are all very interesting people. I was worried I wouldn't be able to understand their Chinese accents but it seems I'm managing quite well.

In Chinese class I am learning important phrases like "turn left taxi driver" and "I don't want any more dumplings." The most impractical one we learned happens to be the title of this post. I finally know how to express my feelings about Hugh Heffner.

On Monday night, one of our advisors/program directors told us that there was a Lantern festival and that we should definitely make a journey into town to see it.

Never having been to a lantern festival, we imagined that there would be thousands of lanterns strung up in the trees, and festival food. We were wrong.

After an hour and a half on the metro and another hour of walking back and forth in front of Tian'anmen square looking for the "lantern" festival, we found nothing and decided to go home. Meanwhile the fireworks dangerously exploding in between houses and the subway stations and the skyscrapers turned out to be the main attraction. The Lantern Festival is just a time when people go out, walk around, and admire the fire works on the last night of New Year's celebration, even though these fireworks have been going off continually for a month now.

In Beijing, there are very few laws regarding the use of fireworks during the New Year celebration. This means that fireworks go off in the street and directly over your head. I have no idea how many people die each year from a firecracker exploding in their brain, but I'm sure there are quite a few casualties. We were lucky enough to make it home that night without singing our hair.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


After a little bit of planning and mapping, I organized a day trip me and a few friends to Tianjin, a city an hour away from Beijing. Imagine my surprise when, on Saturday morning, 12 sleepy college students were on time at 7:30 am to travel to the city with me. We knew we were in for a lot of walking. We walked to the nearest metro station, Wudaokou, which was about a half an hour away. Then we took the metro down to the southern part of Beijing, and took a taxi from that metro stop to the Beijing South Train Station. From there we took a bullet train that reached up to 336 km/h, and reached Tianjin in about a half an hour. The city, at first sight, was missing one attribute of Beijing - air pollution.

All 13 of us started walking, and the real journey began. I played tour guide, because apparently everyone heard there was a day trip, not where, not how, not how long, and I was the only one who knew anything about Tianjin. First we walked toward the Northern part of the city, and we found Old Culture street, which is a street in Tianjin that is reconstructed as a 19th century Chinese hutong. In the little shops on either side of the street, the Chinese venders sold everything from fake Fendi bags to Chinese swords to chopsticks. There were pearl and jade shops right next to fan shops. It was a souvenir shopper's paradise. After an hour and a half of poking around the shops (the boys bought swords, and the girls bought purses), we all met up for lunch at a restaurant at the other side of the street. But we ate light, and prepared ourselves for what I promised would be a real treat.

Tianjin is famous for its fried cakes, so my trusty guide book told me, and after lunch we headed out West to find a famous shop whose name means Earhole in Chinese. When we finally found it, the smell of refried doughnuts was so intense I was drooling. The bakers take sweet bread, fill it with chocolate, cream, or some kind of fruit paste, and then fry the whole thing in sesame oil. We had to fight through the crowds of people (there are no lines in China) to get a few of the cakes for ourselves. Everyone enjoyed them, and I'm pretty sure that if I ate anymore my arteries would have clogged.

After the fried cake fiasco we continued to walk west to get to Tianjin's tiny metro. We needed to get south to walk through Tianjin's upscale shopping district. After about a 20 minute ride we arrived in what looked like New York city. There were a lot of Europeans, and the shops were all American and European clothing stores. Everything was really expensive (for me) and there were beautiful ball gowns and $100,000 cars on sale at every corner. Two real life manequins wearing wedding gowns posed for my camera. One threw up a peace sign but I didn't quite catch it soon enough. Molly, my roommate, and I saw a Haagen Daaz store and were hit with a ferocious craving for ice cream, but because we were running low on time we didn't get a chance to buy some.

All thirteen of us walked about six miles that day, took a high speed train back to Beijing, and then Molly, Tala, Ariel and I headed to the Lotus Center (Chinese Walmart) for some food and a hair straightener - none of which was for me. Molly and I secretly came to hunt for Haagen Daaz ice cream that we were still craving. It's been so hard not being able to drink milk or eat any dairy products here. I really miss cheese and, you guessed it, Ice Cream. When we were starting to think all hope was lost, we saw it. Gleaming by the cash register, by holy and fluorescent light, was a freezer that held large and small pints of Haagen Daaz ice cream!!! Molly and I made a run for it, her juggling the comforter that she randomly decided to purchase, and when we got there all our hopes were dashed. The ice cream was $6 for a one scoop container, and $13 for a half a pint. Our tiny college student wallets just couldn't handle it. We went home, tired and dejected, and vowed to find affordable, good ice cream another day

Thursday, February 5, 2009


After Jinshanling, the group piled back into the bus and headed up north to Chengde. Chengde is a city that has many historical sites, but is very gritty and badly polluted. When we finally arrived at the hotel, which was decked out in touristy fashion, ten of us went for a walk through city. The pollution was so bad that it was hard to breathe. People sold lots of fruit and vegetables on the street corners and it smelled pretty bad at every street corner. It was very cold there, colder than Beijing, and our hands were freezing even through our gloves and mittens. But the people were so friendly. And apparently they don't see many white people because they kept pointing at us and saying "hello!" "hello!" - the only English word they know.

After we got back, we were fed an enormous amount of food. It was just overwhelming, and that's how we continued to be fed for the duration of the trip. There would be eight of us around the table, and the waitress would bring out at least ten heaping plates of food (some unrecognizable) but all pretty spicy and really good.

Mountain Palace

The next day we headed out to the Emperors Mountain Resort. We were told that this is where the emperors would go to escape the head. As all the heat left our own bodies in the zero degree weather, we were wondering why the professors chose the winter to take us to somewhere colder than Beijing. But it was nice in the end because there were no throngs of tourists. There was just us, freezing our limbs off.

The Resort consists of a palace complex with various rooms dedicated to eating, sleeping, and other activities emperors did. After we passed through the complex, there is a mountain that you can hike up to two small temples of worship at the top. There were wild deer, and a frozen over lake that we immediately walked on. The lake started to crack just as we got to the other side, but a kind Chinese man informed us while we were screaming that we weren't going to die: the lake is shallow and frozen solid. After an hour and a half all sixty of us were huddled in a souvenir shop waiting for the buses to come back, and hoping that the feeling in our fingers and toes would come back too!

Putuo ZongCheng Temple

After an extravagant lunch, we set off to another part of Chengde to see a temple called Putuo Zongcheng. I've never seen anything so beautiful, or complex. The temple is actually 12 temples that are all located up the side of a mountain. Most of the temples, all dedicated to different Buddhas, are small, but the temple at the top was huge. We walked up so many steps to get there and when we got to the top, and the view was amazing. We could see all the way down the mountain. The air was a lot clearer and the weather had gotten warmer since that morning, so seeing the temple was a lot more pleasant than the Mountain Resort!

Puning Temple

Puning Temple was our next stop in Chengde. This is a temple that has been dedicated entirely to large Buddhas. In fact, there is a 130 foot Buddha in the very last temple in the complex. There were also musicians in pink cowboy hats who would play Jingle Bells is you gave them 100 Yuan. Go figure. But this temple was also very beautiful and intricate.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


On Monday morning, all 60 of the students in the program piled into two big Greyhound buses and set out on our first school trip. We first headed to Jinshanling, which is about two hours away from Beijing. Jinshanling is the most well preserved part of the Great Wall, and it is beautiful. We went through the gate and immediately started the hike to get there.

On the way up the mountain to the Wall, we were ambushed by a huge group of people of Mongolian descent, who started counting us off like a herd of sheep. They have a system of picking a few hikers and following them around, offering to carry their bags, or take their picture, or just help them across the wall. They are so persistent you don't really have a choice but to let them walk beside you.

We got to the first tower at Jinshanling and the real hike began. The steps on the Great Wall, although well preserved, were very steep going both up and down. We had all dressed for very cold weather and we were all sweating. My old Mongolian woman kept taking me by the hand while I was going down steps, which was a little embarrassing because I considered myself to be in pretty good shape and she looked about a thousand years old and would probably hike the wall five more times that day. The guides were of all ages, old men and women, young men and women, and children, and they seemed to have no problem at all with taking the Wall as far we wanted to go.

The views were so beautiful, and the Wall is just amazing. When you see it in pictures it's hard to believe how big it is and how functional it is even though it was always built over the most difficult parts of the mountains. I was so thankful to get to see it.

On the way down, the Mongolians use the time to try to get money from us. They show us products like books on the Great Wall, a teeshirt that says "I climbed the Great Wall" and postcards. When you refuse to buy them they send you on a guilt trip, saying "I climbed the Great Wall with you and went all that way and now you won't buy anything from me?" Many succumbed to the exhorbitant prices for the souvenirs and paid almost $20 for the books, postcards, or teeshirts. But I knew better, and tested out my newly found bargaining skills and bought a book from the old woman who held my hand the whole journey on the Great Wall for $2!!!! I was kind of excited and a little bit guilty, until someone on my bus told me that they generally get those products for free or stolen, so no matter what I paid her she would have made a profit.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Home Sweet Home

Okay, so I have a lot of catching up to do, so you're going to have to be patient while I put up several posts in one day.

I'd like to tell you about my dorm and Beida, the university I'm attending. Everything is looking pretty bleak right now because it is still wintertime here. Some of the buildings on campus are really beautiful, and look like traditional Chinese architecture with curved roofs and colorful trimming. Other buildings look like the Soviet-esque gray box. Boring, ugly, and depressing.

My dorm is another story altogether. It really looks like a haunted hotel from the outside, just like something from a horror movie. I don't mind living there at all, even though we still have no internet. My roommates are very nice and we all get along great, and all the students in my program are living in the same building. The dorm used to be a hotel, and kind of still is. We have maids come in every day to make our beds, bring us hot water for tea, and clean the bathroom. However, sometimes the water is brown and cold, the paint is peeling off the walls, and there is mold and mildew making itself as much as home as I am. Also, our toilet doesn't flush very well, so we can't put any toilet paper in it. Trust me, it's not as bad as it sounds, and I'm making the most of the things my room does have: a tv, a bed, a desk, and a shower. That's really all I need : ).

The campus is almost like a grid, with very straight streets intersecting each other; it is very much like Beijing in its square design. I have a little red ID card that lets me in and out of the campus walls and into my dorm. A lot of times we eat on campus at various snack shops and convenience stores that sell bottled water, dumplings, crackers, stir fry, and baozi - which is a breakfast food stuffed bun. However, for dinner we go off campus to one of the thousands of restaurants withing walking distance. The other day, my friends and I were eating at a restaurant outside of the West Gate of campus (we can't read the characters for the actual name of the restaurant). We were eating broccoli, rice, and kung pow chicken, when all of a sudden an enormous fish leapt out of its aquarium and slapped the waitress across the face before falling on the floor. The fish was flopping around until finally, the waitress and the cook picked up the fish with a net and plopped it back into the tank with the other fish. Hygenic? I think not.

The first picture is of the International Relations Department in Beijing University. The second picture is of my dorm...creepy huh? The third picture is of me and two other international students in front of the History Department, where we will take all our classes.