Oct 21 2008

After spending the rest of the week in Qingdao, Mom and I flew to Xi’an in Shaanxi province (about a two hour flight) for the last few days of Mom’s trip. Our classes in Qingdao went very well– Mom’s was mostly a much-needed review, and mine left me feeling fairly confident with directing taxis, buying things, and generally getting around. Unfortunately now I only have another week in the Mandarin-speaking part of the country, but I’ll be back! We also managed to get a new digital SLR camera (with James’ help, thank you!) and finally have some nice photos. It was a bit cheaper than in the US, but the amazing thing is the memory cards– a 2GB card was USD$15! I probably should have picked up a few more. That night we hit the bars sans Mom (an “expensive” foreigners bar where Alan had a student discount card for 30% off), and I was able to deviously give Sisi (his girlfriend) her first experience with serious drunkenness. Traditionally women in China don’t drink much if at all, and never to excess, but of course that is changing rapidly. She was totally fine, although it was kind of hard to convince a taxi driver that she’d be a good passenger… James ended up coming back to my dorm since his closes at 11 PM, and crashing on the floor.

Our last day in Qingdao we took James, Alan, and Sisi up to Lao Shan, which is the second most sacred mountain in China (after Tai Shan) and just about 30 minutes outside the city. There are a few temples and monasteries up there, but since I had seen one last time I was in Qingdao we decided to go up to the other side of the mountain– the “natural” side. This turned out to be a great choice, because there is some gorgeous hiking up a small gorge with beautiful vistas and the leaves on the trees just starting to turn towards fall. Alan and Sisi got to try out some of their new GRE word list words– precipice, summit, gorge, scorching. After our hike we went back to our dorm to clean up a little and then meet up again with everyone for dinner– this time Korean BBQ, which was excellent. Someone brought up the idea of karaoke (they call it KTV), and obviously we had to say yes to that (when in Asia…)! We went to a pretty nice KTV place down the main strip in downtown Qingdao, because they knew that place had some English songs and also we managed to find a flyer on the street that gave us a free hour. It was everything you could hope for in an Asian karaoke club– private rooms of course with neon, mirrors, and giant screens which played the music video in addition to the lyrics. We had an awesome time, getting a bunch of cheap Chinese wine (“Great Wall Merlot”) and there were indeed some English songs (I didn’t think I’d ever actually be happy to sing Britney Spears…!) and we got to hear James and his best friend Andrew sing ultra-sappy Korean girl-pop songs to each other in falsetto which really will never get old! We ended up staying there fairly late so Sisi and Alan both came back to my dorm (the whole curfew thing is incredibly inconvenient) and we had a mini-slumber party.

Finally it was time for us to leave, which of course was disappointing, but I have actually decided to fly back there on Thursday. Mom is flying up to Beijing to go back home, and I have a few days before my student tour to Tibet starts, so I figured I might as well go back to Qingdao to have more time with my friends. Then I’ll take the bullet train up to Beijing on Sunday… James is trying to convince his mom it would be a good idea for him to take me to visit his parents’ house in Zibo (not far from Qingdao), but she is worried what the neighbors will think when he brings home a foreign girl who he’s not dating! Totally inappropriate. Also… as a foreigner, who knows, I could be a spy! The gossip will fly…

Now we’ve been in Xi’an for the past couple days. Xi’an is where the terra cotta warriors are, and it seemed like a pretty cool town– its the capital of its province and was the capital of the country for many dynasties so there’s a lot of history here. Its also in the Huai River Valley, judged by many to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization (this is where the oldest evidence of Chinese civilization is). The city is actually much larger than we expected (that seems to be a growing theme in this country), and much more lively– there seems to be a pretty good deal of money here, and lots of people out on the street. We were thinking it’s maybe sort of a Chinese Chicago– not somewhere that seems very glamorous, but actually a great city to live in and legitimately cool. There has also been a small population of Chinese Muslims here for hundreds of years, and the “Muslim Quarter” in the heart of the city is locally famous for its great food and weird culture, including the biggest mosque in China.

We’re staying inside the old city walls (kind of like the walls of Pingyao but bigger), right near the Drum Tower. The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower are two huge raised pavilions in the old city which are now sort of the hub of everything but historically were where bells were rung to signify morning and drums were beat to signify evening. Our hotel is just a block from the Drum Tower, which is very convenient for walking and also as a taxi landmark.

The weather hasn’t been great– cloudy and drizzly and gray, so when our first morning wasn’t actually raining we decided to check out the Muslim Quarter, just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. Our guidebook said that the Muslim Quarter is the place to go for all your Xi’an shopping and eating, and wow were they right!! It is definitely not very Muslim (apart from some of the ladies wearing very thin hijabs and men with scraggily beards and skullcaps) but the food is unbelievable and there’s definitely tons of shopping. A few of the signs even have Arabic on them, sort of — everyone speaks Mandarin on the street although allegedly they at least have a look at a Qur’an at some point in their lives. The small streets are absolutely packed with kebab stalls and vendors selling mountains of dried fruits and nuts, big vats of chestnuts roasting with black sesame seeds, butchers hacking apart whole pigs in the street (is this halal??) and shops steaming dumplings and homemade noodle soups, fried sesame cakes and stuffed pita, and bakeries with stacks of Chinese-Muslim cookies, biscuits, filled doughball treats, incredible peanut brittle and crunchy sweet sesame crackers. We also discovered the greatest food in the entire world: a little flat dumpling of mashed persimmon filled with black sesame paste and fried. IT IS INCREDIBLE! And you can get them hot on the street just about anywhere for 1 RMB (USD$0.15?) I have been living for every meal just so I can have the excuse to get another persimmon cake.

After staring at all the mounds of cow livers, cow hearts, cow kidneys, cow stomachs, pig livers, pig hearts, pig kidneys, whole pigs, sheep heads (yeah that was a little gross) and then the piles of nuts and dried fruit and all the souvenir shops, we finally made it to the “Great Mosque.” The Great Mosque is virtually indistinguishable from any other Chinese temple except for some Arabic script written across a few doorways and archways. It is extremely strange and kind of funny at the same time, but they seem to be enjoying themselves so who am I to judge?? I also saw some fake iPods that actually kind of worked in the market, which was pretty funny, and a guy tried to sell one to me for RMB 650 (USD$150) which I then talked down to RMB150. He finally relented and said I was a very hard bargainer and I really would have bought it but in fact we didn’t have enough cash… He wasn’t too happy about that since his shouting had brought over every shopkeeper within a 50 foot radius and they all were chuckling quite a bit when I finally had to turn him down.

For lunch we got a local specialty– a very hearty mutton soup with green onions and sort of diced noodles (if that makes any sense) which was amazing for a rainy gray day. They also serve it with pickled garlic on the side which was fantastic. In the afternoon we finally headed back to the hotel, stopping by a bakery on the way to get some sesame crackers and filled cookie-pastry-biscuit things. After a rest that night we walked over to the “Forest of Stone Tablets” museum, which holds a huge collection of ancient stone tablets that were carved by Confucius’ disciples. That also happened to be in the calligraphers’ part of town, so every shop sold reams of calligraphy paper and hundreds of different calligraphy brushes (of course mom had to get one– the bristles made of wolf hair!).

Today we decided to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, which are about an hour and a half bus ride out of town. Luckily we got there pretty early in the day because by the time we left (around 2 PM) it was packed. Obviously the warriors were amazing– there are basically 3 massive pits where they have excavated and painstakingly reassembled the figures (they were all smashed and the tomb sacked after the emperor died). There are literally several thousand of them right now, and they think that is only a fraction, pretty unbelievable. You can’t get very close to most of them, but just the sheer number of them is amazing– and each one is different!

We spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon with the warriors, and then took the long bus ride back to the city. We hadn’t really eaten lunch so we were pretty hungry by the time we got back, but decided to check out an old family courtyard residence on our way to dinner in the Muslim Quarter. It was a very nice example of a courtyard home (we’ve seen quite a few at this point!), and they gave us a guide too who was a really sweet girl with very nice English. The house is actually now owned and operated by the Shaanxi province artists’ collective, so there were a few artists-in-residence working there too which was interesting. And, they gave us a small taste of this region’s special contribution to traditional Chinese entertainment– shadow puppet plays. It was pretty cute, with very complex and colorful shadow puppets (they’re actually “backlit” puppets, not shadow) and luckily the show wasn’t too long.

For dinner we had some hot noodles in beef broth with green onions and fresh cilantro (another Chinese Muslim dish) and also some deep-fried leavened dumplings which were all amazing. Its so great because every shop is making the dumpling or noodle or pita dough right in front of you, and cooking it right there too. And of course after dinner I had to have another persimmon cake….

Since it was only 8 PM we went over to the Big Goose Pagoda for the “lights and fountain show,” which is exactly that and takes place in the big square in front of the pagoda. It was actually surprisingly good (there area a lot of fountains), if sort of strange and Disneyland-esque yet in front of a giant ancient Chinese pagoda…

So that’s it for the last week or so, tomorrow is our last day in Xi’an and we’re going to do some more sightseeing before repacking all our stuff and finally parting ways. I’m really glad I won’t really be traveling too much by myself after this– even though it can be difficult being with the same person every second, it’s so nice to have someone else to commiserate with!

Oct 15 2008

I’ve been here in Qingdao now for a couple days. We started our Chinese language class on Monday and that’s been going pretty well– four hours every morning, which gets a little tiring but is definitely helping. Now I can ask for directions, give directions, ask prices and I know the numbers and pinyin. My mom is doing well in her class too.

We met up with Alan and James (guys that Steph and I became fast friends with when we were in Qingdao at the beginning of the summer) the first day we were here, and almost every day since. It’s always so wonderful to see friends where your primary relationship is forced to be online (they live too far away!) and we’ve been having a great time. I met Alan’s new girlfriend (!!) who is absolutely the cutest and most fun thing ever. She studied for a semester in Minnesota so her English is great. The first night we went out for dinner at a hotpot restaurant which was awesome, and last night James took us to a place near his campus which was very good food (he ordered us chicken heart, it was great!) and the entire dinner (4 people, surplus food and four beers) cost RMB 68. That is less that USD $10. They all protested loudly when I insisted on paying that small fortune– I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

I’ve been going to a few bars and a billiards club with the boys, and seeing parts of the city that we definitely weren’t taken to while I was here in June (we were guests of the government, a special pre-Olympic delegation). The “night market” which is basically exactly what it sounds like– a giant open-air nighttime market that looks like it was lifted straight out of any American Chinatown except that it is also filled with young people bar-hopping. We’ve also managed to do a little shopping– we were finally so sick of the two shirts and three pants each that we brought that we decided we had to get some new clothes, and I wanted a set of collapsible chopsticks for healthy travel in Tibet (James couldn’t quite understand that one… delicate American stomaches) and a glass vacuum thermos– I splurged and got the expensive one for USD $5.

This weekend we’re going to leave for Xi’an for a few days. That’s where the terra cotta warriors are, and it was also historically the capital of a few dynasties. It’s supposed to be an interesting town, and it even has a “Muslim Quarter” where some Muslim people used to (still?) live and is apparently a great place to eat and shop. I have a few extra days before I’m supposed to be in Beijing for my student trek to Tibet, so I’m going to come back to Qingdao and James is going to take me to visit his family in the countryside, which should be great (and probably pretty mind-blowing).

Everyone look out for some postcards in the next couple weeks, I’m sending a bunch from here!!

Back in China
Oct 11 2008

Well, we made it back to China, after our flight out of U-B got delayed 12 hours. They wouldn’t leave Beijing, allegedly due to “weather in U-B,” which we found very funny as we were staring at the crystal clear blue sky. Who knows what the real problem was. But, I didn’t mind too much because it meant we were able to spend another day in Mongolia, and I really wasn’t ready to leave. We spent the day with Ishee and Doreen (one of the other ladies on the trip who hadn’t left yet), going to the fine art museum, doing some last minute shopping, and hanging out. We had some Mongolian dumplings (steamed and fried) for dinner, which was good although they love their meat incredibly fatty (Ishee claimed it is to keep you warm in the countryside).

Since we had several days in U-B after we got back from the Eagle Festival in Bayan-Olgy (the far west province), we decided to spend a day and a night out at the Hustai National Park, about 60 miles outside the city. This is one of the places that they are trying to rehabilitate a herd of the original wild Mongolian horses, what we call the Przewalski horse in the west. That morning the first snow of the season fell, dusting the countryside in sparkling white. The sky was crystal clear in a matter of hours! Once we were at the ger camp it took a little bit of effort to find the herd of horses, but we finally did with the help of a very old Mongolian man who is a biologist and has been working with the horses for forever. They were incredibly cute and round– rolling around in the snow and sliding down the hill!

The next morning Ishee managed to procure some horses for he and I to ride through the snow (nobody else was brave enough), which was amazing as I’ve never ridden in anything but 75° and sunshine.

Sadly, very sadly, we managed to get our camera stolen / lost the first day we got back from the west. We had so many fantastic photos from the festival and the train ride, obviously this was kind of a crisis situation for us. I kind of expected it to happen at some point, but still… Everyone else on the trip was taking some great photos too, which I’ll post when I’m back in the States. Clearly this just means I’ll have to come back! We did manage to get a small point-and-shoot in Ulaanbaatar, and maybe we’ll end up getting a new SLR before I go to Tibet.

Our flight out of U-B was so late that we didn’t get into Beijing until 1 AM. We had rearranged our plan so that we had a hotel room near the airport, and the next afternoon could catch the train down to Pingyao. We had a day to relax at the hotel, so we slept in late and got a massage (!). We caught a taxi into Beijing straight to the train station… The size of that city will never cease to amaze me!

While we were sitting in the waiting area before boarding (which was packed with everyone from business men in suits to peasants lugging sacks of rice on their backs), my mom pulled out her notebook and started sketching a few of the people waiting. The ladies next to us noticed, and soon everyone nearby was crowding around to watch. It helped that she happened to be drawing a boy who was sleeping across from us, which made everyone laugh. The power of art to cross boundaries.

The train from Beijing to Pingyao was not at all like the gorgeous one from Beijing to Ulaanbataar. Not that I expected anything too great but… well let’s just say it didn’t look to have been cleaned in the past year or so and the “bathroom” went straight onto the tracks. That was a first for me. Luckily we were taking the night train so we slept through most of it.

Pingyao is a pretty amazing city, its core has somehow been preserved and every single building is at least a few hundred years old. So we’ve spent today wandering around through the city, visiting some of the old banks (the people of Pingyao are largely credited with having invented banking during the Qing dynasty and the town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site) and wealthy courtyard houses. I also managed to find an original copy of Mao’s Little Red Book (one of my goals for this trip– call it a piece of history). We’re staying at an amazing little hotel in an old courtyard house that has been beautifully kept up and has a great tiny restaurant.

Tomorrow we finally head out for Qingdao to take a language class for a week and see all my dear friends there. Needless to say I’m incredibly excited, and doubly so because I’ll get back to the ocean which should stave off any homesickness a little longer.

So much has happened in the last week
Oct 8 2008

I don’t have a lot of internet time so I’ll make this brief..

One of the amazing things about traveling is that time can go by so quickly yet you can’t believe how much you’ve done. Mom and I realized that today marks exactly two weeks since we left home, and it feels like years. What did we do for the two weeks before we left? Practically nothing.

Now we are back in U-B after going to the very western part of Mongolia, the Khazak region (i.e. populated by Khazak people, who are Muslim sort of) for the Golden Eagle Festival. The nomads there have a 2,000 year tradition of hunting with golden eagles. Yes, I mean this literally. They have golden eagles as pets! It is sort of a sport for them, not really their main source of food. They take the baby eagles from their nests and train them from birth, keeping them for five or six years (sometimes longer) and then releasing them.

I’m already running out of time so I’ll just say that we spent five nights in a ger camp by a beautiful stream / river, nestled in yellow-leaved birch trees and rolling rocky hills. The sky is so blue and the leaves so yellow, the rocks red-brown and the herds of animals (everywhere!) just roll through camp whenever they feel like it. Yaks, cattle, goats, sheep, horses. We spent hours in completely absurd Communist-era Russian 4WD vans, which are completely bulletproof and might as well be tanks. The best part is, people drive here like they ride horses– wherever they damn well please. In a single wide ravine there will be about 20 different “roads” that people have created. Eventually we just got used to racing down a roadless mountain at 60 MPH.

We went hunting with a nomadic family– four brothers who all had eagles.  I am a pretty good rider and was able to keep up with them the whole time, and they absolutely loved me. I swear one of them nearly proposed, he kept pointing to his ring finger and then gesturing to me and grinning! But I didn’t mind, we had such a great time. They caught a fox and then were practicing with the eagles, releasing it and catching it again, but the eagles weren’t very interested in the fox and they kept having to literally herd the fox on their horses! I can’t even express how crazy it was, this deserves a much longer post but now I have to go!!

Tomorrow we leave to go back to Beijing, and then take the train straight to Pingyao, an old traditional village southwest of Beijing. Then we’re on to Qingdao!

Beijing & Ulaanbaatar
Sep 29 2008

So… This is finally the first time I’ve been able to get online. I’m in Ulaanbaatar (U-B), the capital of Mongolia. It’s actually a pretty cool city– a bizarre collection of gers (nomad tents), Soviet-era cinderblock apartment buildings, and brand new construction. When the USSR fell apart they just sort of peacefully kicked out all the old Communists and became a democracy, and have pretty much just been growing ever since. It’s very dry and fairly cold, but tomorrow we’re heading out to the far western part of the country for the nomad’s Eagle Festival, where the region’s Kazhak nomads go hunting with golden eagles, play a bunch of games, and get together and celebrate. Traffic is ridiculous here in U-B, not just because of the crazy drivers but because pedestrians will happily walk literally anywhere! Of course this is nothing new to anyone who’s done some third world traveling, but here it’s all a calm chaos– not even that much honking, just lots of weaving around like a giant traffic dance.

We spent a couple days in Beijing before coming here, which was pretty unreal. Its such a huge city, you quite literally can’t see where it ends if you are up on the mountain side (where the Great Wall is). The central districts are so shiny and new, and still have all the Olympic decorations up which are lovely (and those Fuwa are so darn cute). We were staying at an old courtyard house (the kind you see in movies about old China), which is on a hutong (old streets that have sort of become glorified alleyways). It was wonderful, not too touristy but still clean and very quiet despite being walking distance from Tiananmen Square. Which we did indeed walk to… twice. Not really intentional the second time (the street names are… confusing…). Tiananmen Square was amazing. It’s HUGE for one thing, and so surreal to see that giant picture of Mao just staring right out at you. Not to mention the fact that the main boulevard (sort of the Chinese Champs-Elysée) is actually about a mile wide and full of a billion cars and bicycles. And of course it was sobering to think about all the students during the massacre… This square really is massive, and they say it was full of people?!?

The second day we hired a guide and a car (why not? $40 a piece for the whole day) to take us out to the Great Wall. Turns out that the government wouldn’t let “regular” Chinese citizens come to Beijing for their vacation before or during the Olympics, so they are all doing it now!! And of course the Wall is a popular destination, to say the least. So it was packed, but still unbelievable of course. We managed to hike up the steps across a few guard towers… the pictures really don’t show how ridiculously high and wide those damn steps are. I felt like we should have rock climbing equipment with us or something. Our guide said that around the Olympics, he took people out to the Wall (which is an hour or so outside of town) every day for a month. And climbed across those towers every day for a month!

That night we had steamed dumplings for our last meal in town, which were amazing. I also managed to get a Chinese SIM card which worked for about a day until I got into Mongolia, where they don’t really get along with the Chinese or their cell phone networks.

The 30 hour train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar was incredible. We were a little nervous about the state of the Chinese train system, but as it turned out the train was Mongolian anyway. And brand new– our cabin complete with lace curtains, an armchair, and little slippers for you to wear around the train! Not to mention two mini flatscreen TVs, although we could never figure out how to make those work…

The ride itself was so interesting after spending time in Beijing. It doesn’t take long to get out into the countryside, where every few minutes you come to a small town or village of ex-farm commune houses made of crumbling (I mean literally crumbling) red brick, a coal plant in the backyard and a nuclear plant down the street, spewing some really really nasty looking stuff onto the corn fields next to it. Of course there are the donkeys and rusty bikes, and weird three-wheeled old trucks and farm equipment. Needless to say, nobody looks especially happy to be there.

As we went farther north the terrain flattened out from the steep hills and valleys into lower, rolling farmland– still dotted with decaying villages and steel mills of course. Finally, in the middle of the night we crossed the border into Mongolia (which involved three hours of absurdly loud and jolting changing of the track). In the morning we awoke to sunrise on the Gobi Desert. The Gobi is incredibly, strangely, flat. This may not sound very surprising, but being from Southern California I’ve been to a lot of deserts in my life and they all have some sort of relief. Mountains, sand dunes, piles of rocks– something! But we rode through hours of the Gobi without a single thing on the horizon for 360°. After a while your eyes start to play tricks on you, making wispy clouds into distant mountains.

Finally, we began to ascend into the low hills of Mongolia, where many of the nomads live. Big, rolling expanses of grasses and the occasional ger or cluster of buildings, and so many horses. Herds and herds of horses, men herding sheep or cattle on horses, horses tied up outside gers, horses tied up outside train stations, horses tied up next to the car and the satellite dish. So when they say a Mongol isn’t a real man without a horse.. apparently they take that quite seriously.

So, tomorrow we’ll head out to the west, about another 1500 miles from U-B. We’ll stay in a ger camp (not a whole lot of other choices out there apparently) and ride horses with the eagle hunt, which I am beyond excited about. In fact, our guide here grew up as a nomad, so he says he’ll ride hard with me.

That’s it for now, I’ll try to post some photos at some point but who knows when that will be… !!