Sunday, May 3, 2009

Inner Mongolia

Sand dunes in the desert!
The view from my hotel room in Erdos
Riding horses on the grasslands

This week we went to Inner Mongolia. In Chinese it's called Nei Menggu/内蒙古, and it's one of I think 5 or 6 Autonomous regions in China. I'm not exactly sure what autonomous means in China, but I think it just means that instead of Beijing appointing their governor, they appoint it themselves. But don't quote me on that, I'm just purely guessing. Anyways, we went there because it was exam week at Jingshan, and every year the group takes a short trip around this time.

We visited the grasslands, Hohhot (the provincial capital, called Huhehaote/呼和浩特 in Chinese), Erdos, and the Gobi desert. The best parts were Hohhot and the desert.

In the grasslands we stayed in a yurt hotel, meaning that instead of a building with rooms it was a bunch of yurts with beds in them. That sounds really cool, except they were freezing at night. The grasslands themselves were also not so great. We rode horses to three different "sites" on the grasslands. The horses went no more than 2 mph, and the "sites" we saw were a lake that looked more like a giant puddle, some sort of delapidated Buddhist shrine, and a lake that had no water in it because it didn't snow last winter. There was also a killer goat that rammed us in the shins. Altogether a really awesome experience.

Hohhot was really cool. We were all anticipating an industrial wasteland, and what we got was actually a pretty cool, bustling city. We walked around after dinner, and Hohhot is a really cool place to see after dark. There was a large plaza right by our hotel which was full of people and activity. There was also a jumbo tron showing the new Wolverine movie, which as you probably know was leaked online a month or so ago and has since then penetrated every corner of China to the point where I think everyone has at least seen it being sold on the street for 5 yuan. I bought it, and I have to say, if you're going to pay anything, it's really only worth the $.73 I paid for it. Anyways, if you're ever in Inner Mongolia, I recommend spending at least one night in Hohhot.

Erdos was a different story. Apparently it's the richest city in the province because of the coal mines, but you wouldn't guess that from walking around. When we went walking around after dinner, we heard several screams and saw some really sketchy looking stores. Erdos really fits the definition of industrial/nuclear wasteland. I feel really bad for everyone who lives there. If there are a bunch of rich people there, they're not sharing the wealth very much.

The Gobi desert was a ton of fun. When I heard we'd be "playing in the desert" for a few hours, I was really curious what that meant. Afterall, how does one "play" in the desert? It's just a bunch of sand, right? Wrong! China has the savvy to turn the desert into a tourist attraction, full of fun things to do that you have to pay for. I rode an ATV, "drove" a stick shift go-cart thingy, slid down a hill of sand, climbed back up the hill, and saw a Mongolian wedding. It was all really fun, but in the end I had sand everywhere, and couldn't even shower because that night we got on the train back to Beijing.

All in all, Inner Mongolia was pretty cool. I really liked Hohhot and the desert, and although the grasslands and Erdos weren't great, I still had a good time. It's worth a stop the next time you're in China.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Great Wall, Take II

Today we went to the Great Wall. We went to the Mutianyu section (there are three sections in Beijing), the same one that I went to with my host family a few weeks ago. This time, however, I went with the Americans and the kids from Newton North who are here on a chorus trip. The North kids got here on Friday afternoon, and are staying with host families for the week, at which point they'll go back to America. Barely enough time to get over jet lag.

We met at Jingshan at 9am, hopped on a tour bus and were on our way. At one point our guide started talking about the history of the Great Wall and such, but I didn't pay much attention. I love history, I really do, but I'm getting kind of sick of ancient Chinese history. It's so far away that it doesn't really mean anything to me anyways, but I'm also currently living modern Chinese history. It just seems irrelevant to me to learn about Emperor Qin Shihuangdi for the 1000th time.

Anyways, when we got there we took the stairs up, the same as last time. It didn't take long to reach the Wall, but I've come to despise stairs since I've been to China. I think I was traumatized when we were on Huangshan.

I took some pictures, although it was so cloudy you couldn't see very far. We did go further than I did when I came with my host family, to a section that hasn't been restored. It was overgrown with small trees and grass, and the tower was crumbling. According to Gao laoshi, it was built during the Ming Dynasty, so about 500 years old give or take a century or two. Carolyn, Rebecca, Becky, and I took a "let's defeat the huns" (Mulan reference) picture. It was pretty cool. We went down on the slide like I did last time. It's literally a metal slide that winds down the mountain and you ride a little plastic thing with a handle on it to control your speed. It's really fun.

When we got down, we shopped. At the parking lot area, there are tons of little shops where tourists can buy souvenirs. I bought several things, but the fun part of it was bargaining. In many of the places I've been shopping, you can't really bargain. I'll try, and they tell me I can't. Here, however, you could bargain to your heart's content. I got a set of really pretty chopsticks in a nice box with a village scene on the front. The lady's starting price was 385 yuan. That's about $55, for something that is probably worth only a few dollars. I told her I'd pay 10 yuan for it. She didn't like that, but she lowered the price by 20 yuan. I raised my price to 20 yuan. She lowered again, but I insisted on 20. She kept lowering and lowering, while I stayed at 20 yuan. Eventually she agreed to 20, and that's what I paid. I lowered the price 365 yuan, or from $55 to about $3. It felt cool to have lowered it by that much, even though I knew that she didn't expect me to actually pay 385 yuan. I also got two magnets, an "I heart 北京" shirt, and a PLA hat. All in all, I spent about 20 US dollars. Bargaining for the magnets was funny. They guy said 25 yuan, to which I said 5. He lowered and lowered, and when he got down to 10 yuan he went "10. 9. 8. 7. 6. Ok, 5." So I paid $.73 for each magnet, which I think is a reasonable price.

The way home was interesting. The bus ride was nothing special, but the journey home was. When we were back in the city, I noticed that the surroundings looked familiar. I realized that we were passing by what I see everyday on my way to school, which meant that we were near my house. I told Gao laoshi, and she proceeded to ask the bus driver to stop and let me off. Before I knew it, I was off the bus walking on some random street. I knew generally where I was, and which direction was home, just not really how to get there without getting hit by cars. Luckily, I soon found a subway stop and took that to my house. All in all, an eventful day.

A classmate of mine tells me there will be a flea market at school tomorrow during lunch, so that should be an interesting experience...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mao's Body, The Science Museum, and Hutongs

This weekend I went to go see Mao Zedong's body and the Beijing Museum of Science. Today we went to the Hutongs.

Mao's body is housed in a building in Tiananmen Square, south of the Forbidden City. When Mao died in 1976, his body was immediately preserved (although he wanted to be cremated). When they preserved the body, they didn't really know what they were doing, so they pumped him too full of formaldehyde. They soon corrected their mistake, but not before they made a wax copy just in case. To house it, the leaders tore down a gate in Tiananmen Square and built a building to house his body*. 

The building itself isn't anything unusual, and the architecture is standard Chinese. There was a long line to get in, but it went quickly because you're not allowed to loiter when you see the body. The building has two rooms: an entrance room and the body room. The former was really big. There were flowers everywhere (which you could purchase outside in the line), and flanking the back wall was a mural of mountains shrouded in clouds. In the centre of the mural was a stone statue of Mao, sitting with his legs crossed. Then we entered the body room. The best way I can describe it was creepy. It was much smaller and darker than the first room. In the centre was a glassed in section where the body was, with two guards standing watch. Mao was laying in his box, wearing a Mao suit, and on the lower half of his body was a green blanket that had a big red square patch with a yellow hammer and sickle on it. I don't know if it was the real body or the wax copy, but it looked shiny. As we exited the room, we came upon the exit, but not before we went through the ultra-ironic capitalist souvenir shop. It cracked me up that literally right outside the tomb of the founder of Communist China was a shop selling souvenirs. But heck, that's China! (as a side note, there was even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City up until a few years ago) By the way, I'm sorry but I don't have any pictures of this experience. I didn't have my camera anyways, but no taking pictures of Mao's body. Also no hats and no noise.

The Science Museum was slightly less interesting. Carolyn and I were bored on a Saturday, so we decided to go here. I'd wanted to go for a little while, and it seemed like a good thing to do. It was mildly interesting, and at least it wasn't a showcase of how amazingly awesome and superior Chinese technology is, which I have to say I was kind of expecting. There were sections that felt like commercials for Lenovo and BMW, but what are you going to do? It turned out to be okay. There was a section on how we need to ween ourselves off fossil fuels, which was cool. There was a thing on the Olympics and the Olympic torch, which of course left out the part about the protests in London, Paris and San Francisco. Other than that, it was basically your standard science museum, although I think I like the one in Boston better.

The Hutongs were really interesting. If you didn't know, the Hutongs (literally "alley") are one of the last remnants of Old Beijing. They're low lying buildings with courtyards that people live in. A better description of them can be found here. The controversy surrounds the fact that the government of Beijing has become infamous for tearing down these historic alleyways in favor of high rises or shopping centers, often while giving residents little to no advance notice or without adequate compensation. This is what we went to today, and it was pretty sad. The word "demolish" was spray painted everywhere, and you could see that the process was already underway. Several walls had whole sections that were on the floor, and by that I mean the bricks they were made of were on the ground instead of in the wall. It's sad because these dilapidated buildings are peoples' homes, not just cultural relics (the favorite word in China for anything and everything ancient and historic). I wish the government would treat the Hutongs with as much respect and admiration as they do the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, hopefully before it's too late.

*I find it a common theme in the history of Communist China that they really love to tear down old buildings in favor of new things. The city walls, that building, the Hutongs, all were/are being torn down to build more modern things. Even the Forbidden City was at risk of being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Le Shan Giant Buddha (le shan da fu/乐山大副

This week I accompanied my host mom on a business trip to Chengdu. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, and is known for its spicy food. I had a great time there, even if internet access was spotty.

While there, I went to see pandas, hiked up a mountain to visit Buddhist temples, and saw the Le Shan Giant Buddha.

The pandas were really cool. I saw toddlers and teeenagers, and both were huge. The toddlers were eating, and they basically just shove a bunch of bamboo in their mouths and chew on it.

I hiked up Qingcheng Mountain, which had a number of Buddhist temples on it. The temples didn't really interest me much, since I've seen so many since I've been here and they all basically look the same. It was really cool to look down the mountain and see all the green scenery. 

The Le Shan Giant Buddha was amazing. It was carved out of a mountain in I think the Tang Dynasty because the monks thought it would help stop the river from flooding (apparently it worked). It's gigantic, and it looks out onto the convergent point of three different rivers, with the city off in the distance. It was really cool.

The Earthquake: As you know, next month is the one year anniversary of the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. The epicenter was only about 30 or 40 miles from Chengdu. I saw some buildings that had damaged sections, and even an entire street where all the buildings were empty. In the countryside, there were some buildings whose bricks were laying in disarray on the ground, but I'm not sure if that was from the earthquake. The point is, almost a year later there's still a lot of work to do. Many people who lost their homes and/or businesses still have not regained their losses. It kind of reminded me of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I've been down there several times since the Hurricane because my brother goes to Tulane, and there are still a lot of damaged houses and many people sleeping in tents under overpasses. I guess China and America have that in common.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Beijing Huanying Ni!

Here's a video of our performance. I'm the one to the right of the kid in the red shirt, the one who's short standing between two tall kids.

Last Tuesday was the opening ceremony of the cultural festival at Jingshan. Every year around this time, they host a festival where people from all over the city can come to see culture. Usually this ceremony is held in the auditorium at the school, but apparently there's a big anniversary coming up, so this year it was held in the Forbidden City music hall.

There were several amazing performances. Our kungfu/tai chi teacher led a group of students in taichi, a group of girls did what I'll call an interpretive dance inspired by the Sichuan earthquake last year, and then there were the Austrians. They came last Monday specifically to participate in this festival, and boy could they sing. They sang a bunch of songs in what I think was German, mostly because I couldn't decipher anything they were saying. One song was about Macbeth, and they had three people put on witch masks and act out some scenes. They went into the crowd and scared all the little kids. It was cool, but it lasted about 45 minutes, and my attention didn't. 

Becky and Elias MC'd, and to their credit they memorized a bunch of Chinese. Assisting them were a few Chinese kids, including one guy who's going to St Mary's in the fall. He speaks English with an Australian accent, and it was funny to listen to. 

Then comes our singing. The school wanted us to participate, only none of us has any musical talent whatsoever. We can't sing, dance, act, nothing. Nevertheless, we sang "Beijing huanying ni." It means Beijing welcomes you, and it's a song that was made in the runup to the Olympics. 100 days before the opening ceremonies, they came out with this song, which is sung by 100 famous Chinese stars (including Jackie Chan). The real version is on youtube, but youtube's blocked at the moment, so I can't give you the link. Just put 北京欢迎你 in the search engine and you can find it easily. Then you can see how it's supposed to sound.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Random bits of Beijing

For this post, there won't be a specific theme, I'll just talk about several things I've done in the past few days.

Yesterday the Americans went to the Temple of Heaven (tiantan/天坛). It's a famous temple in Beijing, and it's one of four (the others being the temples of earth, sun, and moon). In imperial China, the emperor came here just once a year to pray for a good harvest, and now it's a tourist attraction (naturally :P). You've probably seen a picture of it before, but just in case I have this picture above for you to awe at. It was okay as temples go, at this point in the trip we've all seen more than our fair share of temples, and they all look relatively the same. Our guide, Wang laoshi, was wonderful. She came to America last fall so we know her well, and she has the amazing quality of always being chipper and positive and smiling. She's really great. After the temple we went out to lunch, where we ordered everything we've come accustomed to eating here in China (eggplant, sweet and sour pork, beef and noodle soup, fried noodles, etc).

After the temple, I went with Ms Richard, Ms Kamerik, Carolyn, and Rebecca to the clothes fair. It was a fair that was running through March 31 at Ditan Park (Temple of Earth Park). The best way to describe it was the Chinese version of a flee market. There were stands everywhere selling all manner of goods, from clothes to jewelry to Santa Claus pottery and nativity scenes. About 98.5% of the clothing was so ugly I had to laugh at it, since I've grown used to seeing people wear things I wouldn't be caught dead in. The one thing I did buy were silk scarves. My mom told me that the one thing from China she wanted was silk scarves for every adult female in my extended family, and when we were in Shanghai I forgot to get some. Luckily, they were less expensive here, and I hope I chose nice ones.

Saturday night I went out for Mexican food. This may seen like an unremarkable thing to say, but it isn't. America has a long history of immigration, and with it a long history of ethnic food. Immigrants came, and with them they brought their local cuisine. China's very different. There is no real history of immigration here, and 95% of the population of 1.3 billion is Han Chinese. There are about 50 ethnic minorities and different cuisine in different regions, but everything is relatively the same, with not nearly as much variety as we have in America. Lately I've been craving Western food, so we did some research and found that there are two Mexican restaurants in Beijing (yes, only two in the entire city). My host mom found the address of one of them, and Saturday night we went. It was a small restaurant, and I noticed two things as I walked in: the staff was entirely Chinese and there was no one there. Nevertheless, we sat down for a meal of quesadillas, fajitas, and nachos. Considering it was Chinese Mexican food made by Chinese people, it was amazing. It reminded me of home, and satisfied my craving for Western food. Perhaps I can go back.

Today I went to Chinese Whole Foods. I was bored, so I called up Carolyn and suggested we go to an American food market that Hannah told me about. We hopped on the subway and went. It was in southeastern Beijing, the same area as the Mexican restaurant. According to my host mom, this area is the best/most expensive shopping in Beijing, and boy was she right. The market was in a shopping mall that housed brands such as Gucci, Versace, and Bvlgari, basically really really really expensive stuff. These malls are not China, they are America. If it weren't for all the asian people, I would forget I'm here. We walked into the market, and looked in awe at what they had. There were many products that you can't find in regular shops in China, and even things that didn't have any Chinese on them except for a small label the supermarket put on them. The highlight was when I spotted the brownie mix. I haven't had brownies in two months, so I went straight for them. I was told before I got to China that Chinese people don't have ovens, but my host parents said that we did and I trusted them even though I haven't seen ours. Jimmy says that it can get up to 350 degrees F, and I'll take his word for it. I can't wait to make them.

Tuesday marks the beginning of a cultural festival that Jingshan's hosting. Becky and Elias are MCing the event, and the Americans are singing "Beijing huanying ni" (Beijing welcomes you, one of the anthems of the Olympics). They wouldn't listen to us when we told them we can't sing, so it should be interesting. The other exciting piece of this week is that the Austrians are here. Jingshan has a relationship with a school in Austria, and every year around this time a group from Austria comes to participate in the cultural festival, and they arrived Saturday. I'm so excited to have other foreign people to talk to, especially Europeans. Apparently they're only here for a week, but that's okay. I just need to get through this week, because next week I go to Chengdu, and that's going to be awesome. I can't wait. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Half Way In/There: The Review Post

It's March 23, 2009. I've been in China for exactly two months, and I'll be here for two more. This is where I reminisce about everything that's happened and everything that will happen.

I'll start off with what I miss about home. It probably says something about me that what I miss the most is not my friends or my family (though I love you guys a ton), but the FOOD. I have spent the past few days fantasizing that I could go back to America for just a couple of days, eat, and return to China. In no particular order, I want: a bagel with lax and cream cheese (or lax spread), pepperoni pizza, pasta, jambalaya (my mom makes a killer one), a burrito, a pastrami sandwich, buffalo wings, french onion soup, and clam chowder. Just this morning, I had a conversation with Carolyn in which we talked about all the things we want to eat. I told Jimmy about this conversation, and he told me that the Chinese kids had the same talk in America. I guess it's normal to miss your local cuisine.

I've done so much so far that it's impossible to remember everything. I've taken about 1,000 pictures give or take (a completely random estimate. let's just say I've taken quite a few) of everything and everywhere. I've experienced first-hand what it's like to go to a Chinese school, and let me just say that it's not any better than an American high school. For one thing, they don't believe in heat. As long as it's not raining or windy, they have to go outside and do exercises in the morning, even when it's freezing out. In class, the teacher mostly just talks without much participation from the class. The uniforms are cool. I think the top by itself with jeans looks fine, but with the blue sweatpants it looks kinda ridiculous. There's always debate going on in America over whether we should have school uniforms, because it eliminates the pressure to dress well. After wearing a uniform to school for a month, I can say that I like wearing my own clothes to school everyday.

There are several things about China that are completely different from the US. Some things I heard in the run up to the Olympics that China/Beijing was trying to eliminate are still going strong. There's the spitting for one. People spit constantly, usually preceded by a loud clearing-of-the-throat sound that I've come to cringe at. The driving is insane, but I've gotten used to that. I've had to hone those look-both-ways-before-crossing skills that I've let slide since 2nd grade. Here, cars won't really stop, so if you don't look, you're dead. The shoving isn't so bad. If you're not careful, someone may take your spot or run up ahead of you if you're not paying attention, but other than that it's not a huge problem. The subway is always crowded, and the only time I can ever sit down is on Friday nights past 9pm. It's like Boston's rush hour, but all the time.

I've found myself thinking anything priced over 50 yuan is too expensive, even though that's only about $7. I've been to "America" a few times, and by that I mean gigantic ultra-capitalist style shopping malls. I don't generally buy anything because I've come to the conclusion that any article of clothing a Chinese person will buy is ugly. Most of the things they wear I wouldn't be caught dead in, and sometimes it genuinely makes me gag. It's also expensive. Anything you see in the big Western malls is marked up so that it's basically as expensive as it would be in the US. For example, a sweatshirt that would be $25 in America is 170 yuan here (divide{¥-$}/multipy{$-¥} by 6.84 to convert).

My goals for the rest of the exchange are to improve my Chinese and to explore more. I haven't been speaking as much Chinese as I'd like, although I can understand people pretty well now. Reading and writing's a whole different story. I'm learning more grammatical structures and useful things like conjunctions and prepositions in our Chinese class. There are also parts of Beijing that I still haven't seen, since it's such a huge city. I virtually never go to the western part of the city, and I'm not sure what's there. I've also never gone north of the Olympic Park, or much futher south than Tiananmen Square (though we're going to the Temple of Heaven this weekend, which is further south than that). I haven't seen Mao's body, which I definitely will do at some point. There's so much I want to do, but I have no idea where to start. I just hope the next two months will be as fantastic as the last two. At least it'll be warmer!!!