A Travellerspoint blog

One last adventure


Somehow I feel like I can't leave the story of my trip from Beijing to Glasgow out of all of this. So here it is.

I left Christina's grandmother's apartment at about 3 pm Beijing time (8 am Glasgow time). I wanted to give myself plenty of time at the airport because I figured it would be packed. So Christina and I went to the nearest subway station and, of course, this is the one time I've ever seen that escalator broken. And getting down to the metro level took about five flights of stairs. With my suitcase. And the stairs were slippery. It seemed to be a disaster in the making, but I made it to the bottom without falling and decided that if that was the worst I got on the trip, I would be okay. Me and my big mouth.

We got to the airport at about 4, giving me 2 and a half hours until my flight. I got to check in and there was no line (it literally took me ten minutes total). So much for packed. We killed some time by buying a few Beijing snacks for my family to try, and then Christina headed home and I went on to immigration and security. This took me maybe twenty minutes because I had to take a shuttle to the right place. So I wound up at my gate well over an hour before I had to board. It was dull, but I'd rather have extra time than wind up sprinting through the terminal to make my plane.

The plane boarded on time and the captain came on to give the usual spiel-- welcome, thanks for flying with us, we're looking at a 3 hour flight today, etc. And we're just waiting for air traffic control to give us the go ahead. Just waiting. For an hour. Normally I wouldn't have too much of an issue with that, except that my layover was only an hour and a half, and Hong Kong is a big airport. I was a little bit antsy on the flight. My trip to Beijing had been so smooth that I hadn't even thought of having issues on the flight out. We landed about ten minutes before my second flight was supposed to board. Then we taxied for fifteen minutes. Then we had to take a shuttle to the terminal because we had stopped on the tarmac. China had one more personal-bubble-popping ride for me. Our entire flight crammed onto one shuttle. At this point I was quite confident that I would miss my flight and get stranded in Hong Kong.

But luck was on my side (knock on wood). When I got in I saw a Chinese lady in a British Airways uniform with a sign that had my name and flight number on it and said, "PLEASE CONTACT US!" I'm not sure why that message was necessary- talking to her seemed like the most obvious course of action. She whisked me away and led me at a solid power-walk straight to my gate where I was just in time to sprint onto the plane. I think I got on at around the time it had been scheduled to leave. Lucky for me, it was running a bit late. So I took my seat (in the middle, again) and settled in. A few hours in, I tried to turn off my reading light so that I could go to sleep. Except it wouldn't turn off. None of the buttons on my armrest were working, including the flight attendant pager. So I went up and asked them if there was any way to fix it. They did what they could, but nothing they tried worked. Fortunately, there happened to be an empty (and dark) seat a few rows ahead of me, which was a window seat that had no one in the middle either. That was the best upgrade I could have hoped for, so I took it and eventually managed to get a few hours of sleep before they served breakfast and came around with landing cards.

Immigration was a breeze at Heathrow, too. We were the first flight in, so there was no line. Of course, no sooner had I gotten past the immigration officer than I heard my name over the intercom, being called to the British Airways customer service desk. I had wondered if my bag had been as lucky in Hong Kong as I had been. It hadn't. The man at the desk was really friendly and told me that Hong Kong had notified them and that my bag would be on the next flight in, which would arrive in about an hour. He said my options were to wait around for it or to go on to Glasgow and they would fly it up there for me. Since we didn't have train tickets to Glasgow yet, I decided to wait, but I needed to leave the baggage claim area. My mom was waiting for me and I had no way to contact her. The man told me that that was fine, all I had to do was go in the staff entrance across from the doughnut shop to come back in for my bag. Perfect.

Off I went to customs, where according to the sign, I had to declare food. I still had that bag of snacks, so I went in to the "I have things to declare" area, where I found an empty desk. I waited awkwardly for a minute until an old man walked in and asked if I had something to declare. I had to fight the urge to say, "Duh," since if I didn't I would have taken the "I don't have things to declare" line. He asked what it was and I pulled out the sealed bag of snacks, explaining to him that they were some candies from Beijing.

"What are they made of?" he asked.

"Well, they're like... rice dough stuff... with fillings..." I answered. I thought the explanation would sound more articulate than it did.

"Any meat fillings?"

"Um, they're candies... so no."

"Alright, then, love, rice is fine," he said with a smile. "It's really just meat and dairy you have to declare."

"But the sign says food," I replied.

"Just meat and dairy. Here's a pamphlet."

"Um, thanks." I took the pamphlet and left. I'm not quite sure why I took the pamphlet, but I still have it.

Finally through all of the checkpoints, I met up with Mom. It was wonderful to see her after so long, and we had coffee and chatted while we waited for the flight carrying my bag to arrive. When it did, I went in the staff entrance and explained myself to the man who checked people in. A British Airways guy had to come and escort me through, but it was less awkward than I had expected. I guess it happens pretty regularly. I got in just as the bags started coming on to the carousel. So I watched and waited. And waited. And waited. And eventually bags just stopped coming out, and it seemed like no more were going to. I waited a couple of minutes to be sure, but then went back to the service desk. The man was surprised that it hadn't come out, but assured me that Hong Kong were really good about getting bags where they said they would. I should give it another ten minutes. So I went back to the carousel and watched the empty track moving. I didn't wait quite ten minutes, but as far as I could tell, bags weren't coming any time soon. Back to the customer service desk. The man was really surprised that it still hadn't arrived and apologized profusely for my wasted time. The best course of action now was for me to fill out a report and have it sent to Glasgow, where I could pick it up later. I had just signed my first name when the man says, "Wait!! It just scanned in on Carousel 7! Go check, I'll keep the report open, just in case."

Thrilled that I might not have to wait longer for my bag, I sprinted to the carousel, ducking under the tape that is supposed to keep people in line. Needless to say, I almost did a face-plant in the process. But my bag was finally where it was supposed to be. I grabbed it, went back to thank the man at the service desk, and went back out to meet Mom.

The rest of the trip was pretty smooth. We went to the train station and caught the next train up to Glasgow, which was about a 4 and a half hour trip. The British countryside is gorgeous, and I was deprived of clear blue skies in Beijing, so I loved it. Dad picked us up at the train station and took us back to the flat. I was excited to see him and Iain. So now the family is back together, and we're just hanging around while Dad finishes a business call so that we can go get dinner. We got to the flat at about 2:30 pm Glasgow time. After some unnecessarily difficult calculations, I figured that from leaving Christina's grandmother's place to arriving at Dad's flat, I was traveling for about 29.5 hours. I think that's a record for me.

And now, it is time to eat. So I hope some of you found this whole thing as amusing and ridiculous as I did.

Posted by MAx1992 07:43 Comments (0)

"Eternal Happiness"


Sunday was another solo trip around Beijing. I finally headed back over to the Drum and Bell Towers (after my failed attempt at finding them a few weeks ago) and checked them out. They're definitely worth visiting. The Bell Tower has an enormous, beautiful bell and is apparently "structurally more interesting than the Drum Tower" according to the American who was reading to his family out of their guide book. Lacking any knowledge about structures, though, I was rather more interested in the Drum Tower. They had a lot of huge drums and they do demonstrations several times a day. The sound is incredible. It's like thunder. Both towers took a little bit of effort to get into. The stairs are extremely steep.

Just outside of the Drum Tower, I walked by a shop with artwork in the window. I've been looking for artwork to take to my family as gifts, so I stuck my head in just to see. I figured the prices would be way more than what I wanted to pay, but there's no harm in looking. Much to my surprise, I walked into a conversation between an old Chinese man and an Italian woman-- in Italian. It took me a minute to catch up, because I'm so used to hearing either rapid Chinese or faulty English. The Chinese man looked at me when I walked in and switched into Chinese to ask me where I studied Chinese. I couldn't figure out how he knew that I study Chinese, since most people assume I don't speak any. Then I realized that I was wearing my W&M Confucius Institute shirt. Right. So I chatted with him in Chinese for a while and he asked me what my Chinese name was so that he could write it in calligraphy for me as a gift. He said he really likes it when students come to China and he wants them to feel welcome and encouraged to keep studying. While he was at it, I looked through the paintings and he told me that since I was a student, he would give me a good price. He was true to his word. I've been looking at artwork for the whole trip and his prices were better than I had seen anywhere else. I explained that I hoped to get something for my parents and for my twin brother.

"You have a twin brother? 龙凤胎?" he asked. 龙凤胎 is what boy-girl twins are called. They're literally "dragon-phoenix twins." I told him that I did and he wrote another piece of calligraphy for me as a gift. "The dragon and phoenix bring eternal happiness." Then he wrote my Chinese name and Iain's (he made one up since Iain doesn't have one). We talked a bit more and then I headed off to my next stop of the day, feeling really happy.

Next I went to the Yonghegong Lama Temple. I went mostly on a whim- I had seen the subway stop for it and realized that it was probably my last chance to check it out. So I went in not sure what to expect. It was a lot bigger than I had anticipated, with a ton of deity statues and beautiful buildings. There were also some interesting exhibits that gave information about the different deities, which was really helpful. The highlight is the 26 meter tall statue that's carved out of a single tree (and there's a Guiness World Record plaque on the wall to prove it). All in all, it was a really interesting visit.

Today, Grace and I went to the Pearl Markets, something I've been meaning to do for weeks. Christina couldn't come because she came down with another cold and her mom was afraid that it would turn into bronchitis again. So we went off to haggle. It was a good last Chinese adventure, and I got some nice things there. I was really glad to have Grace, because I'm terrible at haggling. It isn't really a language issue. I have the vocabulary and language skills for it, I'm just awful at it. I give in too easily. Grace let me try for a bit before jumping in because I was bringing my price up too quickly. She helped me get a good amount off, so I owe her one for that.

I guess this is all for my China blog this summmer. I can't believe it's already time to go. It's been a lot of fun and I've gotten some good practice in with my Chinese. I'm pretty much done packing for my flight tomorrow evening. But I'll be sure to update from Scotland when I get there safely. If anyone has any recommendations for things to do or see in Glasgow or the surrounding area, let me know.


Posted by MAx1992 01:22 Archived in China Comments (0)

It really is a small world


The title of this blog comes from Wednesday night. Preston, another boy from my freshman dorm, arrived in China last weekend, so I met him and Tyler and a few of Tyler's coworkers at a bar because it was the last chance I'd have to go. We spent a couple of hours hanging out, but then both Preston and I had to leave (he had early meetings and I had to catch the last subway train). Before we went, the three of us wanted a picture together. Since the lighting inside was terrible, we went out onto the roof to take one. As we walk out we hear someone say "Tyler?" There were two men about our age, one from Harbin (China) and one from Belgium, both of whom Tyler had met during his year abroad with AFS. Tyler had had no idea that they were in Beijing, and they hadn't known he was, but here they all were, on the roof of a club in Beijing. So it is a small world, after all. AFS people are everywhere.

Thursday I went back out with Christina and her family. We had planned to go to some caves, but they were (shockingly) flooded, so plans changed. Instead we went to the Natural History Museum. I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I think the Smithsonians set my expectations a little high. The translations were bad and the taxidermy was worse (but as a result I have hilarious pictures). The exhibits were small and felt limiited in scope. Still, I had never been to a museum in China before, so it was an interesting.

From there we walked back to 前门 (Qian Men) and walked along the a pedestrian street filled with "ancient brands" (as far as I could tell, stores and restaurants that have been around for a long time and were famous). The street itself was the most industrial-looking place I've ever seen. The buildings were all made of dark grey brick and the cobblestones were light grey, same as the sky, which was overcast that day. Aside from some bright red lanterns there were almost no colors. We stopped by a street vendor selling a popular Beijing snack: candied hawthorne berries on a stick. They were delicious. Then we went to a store to shop a little bit, and then we had dinner at a restaurant that is famous for its shaomai. I'm not really sure how to explain them. They're like savory pastries; meat filling wrapped in dry dough. Filo dough? I'm not sure. They were amazing, though. We also had a cabbage dish with sesame dressing that was the emperor's favorite (I can see why) and another cabbage dish with mustard dressing. Not mustard like Frank's yellow mustard, I'm talking about real mustard. It doesn't burn your tongue, but it gets in your sinuses and is searingly hot. Needless to say, I loved it. Christina and Grace gave me their shares. They weren't as fond of it. By the time we got back out on the street, it was dark and the street lights had come on. I'm not sure how, but it gave the street a completely different feel. The lights were golden yellow, so it took the edge off the cold grey stones and gave it life. The nighttime crowds were bustling and busy and it ended up being quite fun.

The trip home from there was an adventure in and of itself. Christina's mom has a bad hip, and while she can walk short distances, she can't do stairs and can't walk far, so whenever we go out, she's in a wheelchair. Typically it's been fine. We've been able to find elevators (or escalators- she can stand long enough for them) at the subway stations, so it's always worked out. Not so this time. There was an escalator going up, but not down. There was an elevator, but not at the enterance we got to. It was at the one across the street. Except it's a busy street, so pedestrians cross underground, and you need to take the stairs to get to that underpass. So a three of the young men working at the metro station had to carry her, wheelchair and all, down all of the stairs. When we got to the next station where we needed to change trains, there were more stairs, but again, no elevator. So we had to get more men to carry her down the stairs. But it was late, so the station was understaffed and they didn't have enough people. So we had to wait for twenty minutes while they rounded up kind strangers who were willing to help. They asked if the three of us (me, Christina, and Grace) could do it, but my back was sore from walking so much the past few days, Christina wasn't feeling well, and their mom insisted that Grace was too small. So we waited. The station we got off at near the apartment, fortunately, is equipped with elevators. I guess the point of this is that China needs a citizens with disabilities act.

Friday turned into a lazy day (and a crazy day for various reasons). Then yesterday, Saturday, I went out with Grace and her aunt, uncle, and cousin to lunch and an arcade. Christina was sick and Grace didn't want to go with them alone. So I kept her company. The arcade was interesting. Some familiar games were there (claw machines, basketball hoops, air hockey, etc.) as well as some decidedly Chinese ones (like a guitar hero type game for Chinese style drums). I was pretty decent at the basketball and air hockey games. Comparatively, anywas. I wasn't much good at the others. I've never been an arcade person. The place was packed, but when Grace commented on the number of people, her aunt said that it had been pretty relaxed that day. I'd hate to go on a busy day.

This particular set of relatives is interesting. Christina said that the cousin (who is probably about 12) emailed her dad to tell him about their Spring Festival celebrations, and bragged about the fact that their moon cakes were from the US. They're decidedly pro-Western culture, but I can't work out why. While we were with them, they would ask me and Grace about the English words for everything, and they refused to speak Chinese to me (even though I understood). They wanted to practice their English. It was an interesting day. I really need to figure out where the Chinese obsession with Western culture is, and why so many think it's inherently better than Chinese culture. I see it a lot, but I can't figure out why.

Anyways, we'll see what today brings. I leave Wednesday. I can't believe it's so soon.

Posted by MAx1992 20:18 Archived in China Comments (0)

Beijing sights

I just need a sign that says “我不想跟你照照片” (I don't want to take a picture with you)


By the way, for those who heard about the flooding in Beijing and, as my parents made me realize, might be a little worried, I'm fine. The district I live in didn't get hit badly and I was in Qingdao during the storm anyways. The apartment complex is totally fine and so are Christina and her family.

A couple of days ago, Christina, Grace, and I went to 中山公园 (Zhongshan Park), right next to the Forbidden City. It's full of enormous, ancient trees that I can't even fit my arms halfway around. To put that in perspective, my armspan is 5'4". Big trees. The park was really beautiful and it was fun to wander around it. It takes you away from 20 million people of Beijing. We also looked at 前门, which means "Front Gate." It's an ancient structure that's on the opposite side of Tiananmen. Christina and Grace were hoping to find kite vendors at Tiananmen, but apparently the government banned them because the kites block the view.

Then yesterday we went with their mom to see 天坛, or The Temple of Heaven, which has been on my list of must-sees for this whole trip. It may have been one of my favorite pieces of architecture yet. I'm not sure why. It was just really pretty. The temple itself (The Temple of Praying for Good Harvets, or something to that effect) is smaller than I had realized, but there are a lot of other buildings and it's all in a big park full of cypress trees. There was also an echo wall, which I wanted to try out because of the one at W&M, but apparently you have to stand really close to it and they've blocked it off because of graffiti. So I could see it, but couldn't get close enough to try it. Still, I learned a lot about the religious practices of the ancient Chinese while I was there. I hadn't realized that they used animal sacrifices. I'm not quite sure why that came as a surprise to me. That's common in tons of religions all over the world, but I had never associated it with China. That's what they used the Temple of Heaven for, though.

The sacrifices reminded me and Christina of the signs that we saw at the Ethnic Groups park last week. There was a sign about each ethnic group giving some information about them- where they live, how many people they have, religions practices, foods, etc. A lot of them said, "This group practices primitive religion." We couldn't figre out what that meant. When we saw the information about animal sacrifices at the Temple of Heaven, though, we realized that many of those ethnic groups may very well still do something similar, since a lot of people consider those kinds of religious practices "primitive." It's still a guess, though. We're not quite sure.

These outings all resulted in more Chinese coaching from Christina. Whenever my Chinese professor says that two words mean exactly the same thing, I'm skeptical, because true synonyms are really rare. Sure enough, they're different. After my adventure with trying to explain to one woman at the Forbidden City that the students working at the embassy weren't allowed to take pictures with her, I told Christina about it and she explained that I had used the wong verb. I had said "不会" when I should have said "不能". I had been told that both mean "can," but Christina said that 能 is closer to "may," which would have been more appropriate in that context. That lesson had been reinforced at Beihai park, were I had to deal with a ton of people wanting pictures. While at the Temple of Heaven, I was asked by an entire family (apparently extended family, because there were a ton of them) if I would take a picture and, flustered by how many of them there were, I had jumped back to that lesson and told them "我不能" "I may not [take a picture]." They laughed bit and seemed confused, so I repeated myself and they left. Christina was laughing, too.

"What, were my tones wrong?" I asked.

"No, but you said '不能'," she explained.

"I thought that was the right one," I said, confused and hoping I hadn't switched them mentally. Undoing that can take forever.

"It is, but the way that he asked the question you should have said '我不想' which is 'I don't want to'," she said.

"Oh. Gotcha." Truth be told, I hadn't actually caught what the man had said to me, because I had been distracted by something and hadn't had time to catch up with him. I had just seen the camera in his hand and the way he was gesturing and guessed at what the question was.

So that's how I learned to pay very close attention to which verb people use when they ask me a question. Because there's no way to just say "Yes" or "No." You have to use the verb they used and either affirm or negate it. If you use a different verb than they did, while they may be able to understand you (they did, after all, leave me alone), it will sound really awkward.

That was the only time anyone asked me for a picture in Chinese that day. The other two men who asked both spoke English. The first time I was so surprised that he had asked me in English that I answered in Chinese reflexively ("不想" this time). He understood me perfectly and left. I think Christina thought that was even funnier than my incorrect Chinese.

Posted by MAx1992 23:33 Archived in China Comments (1)

Ethnicities, Beihai, and Qingdao


It's been a while since I updated. Oops. Well, I've fully recovered from being sick, so that's good.

After all illnesses were set aside, Christina, Grace, their mom, and I spent a couple of days being tourists together. We saw the Ethnic Groups park, which has stuff about all 56 ethnic groups in China. There was a really fun presentation by the Dai people that culminated in a water war. Except instead of losing if you got wet, the wetter you were the more blessings you received. I thought it was a nice twist on the way we do it...

The next day was spent at Beihai park, which, quite simply, is beautiful. Lots of trees and rocks to climb on. There was also a little cave that was more a tourist trap than any particularly interesting geological site, but it was still fun to wander through. It was a really fun day. Beihai also has a restaurant where you get served the same foods that the emperor would have eaten. We didn't go because it's crazy expensive, but the cheap option is buying a box of the desserts that the emperor would have eaten. Most of them were pretty good, but I was not a fan of the pea thing. What is that, you ask? Well, it looks kind of like a caramel. It's made of mashed peas. This made for not a happy Miranda. Oh well. The other notable thing about Beihai was that everyone wanted a picture with me. I had only had that problem a couple of times on this trip, until Beihai, where at least half a dozen people asked me for a picture. Most people just wandered off shyly when I said no. Some looked upset, like I was being mean and denying them something that they deserved. Some tried to take it anyway. A number of people just didn't even ask; I caught them trying to covertly take my picture and all I could do was turn my back. I've never been anywhere else where taking pictures with foreigners was a thing. I don't quite understand it. But I will say that should I ever meet anyone famous, I probably won't get a picture with them, because I now know how incredibly annoying it is. Still, at least most people ask.

Friday afternoon, Tyler and I hopped a bullet train to Qingdao, or as beer drinkers will recognize it, Tsingtao. This was a much nicer ride than the one to Chengde, which was not a bullet train. I read most of the way. We got in about 10 and, after spending twenty minutes looking for a cab that wasn't trying to charge us 50 yuan for a five minute ride, made it to the hostel. It was a really nice one, actually. Despite the fact that it was late, we didn't feel like going to bed and decided to walk down to the nearby pier instead. The "beach" was pretty disappointing. Rocky rather than sandy and the tide was out. Still, it was really nice to smell the ocean air and feel the breeze. We wandered around the pier for a while, looking at the trinkets people were selling, making them guess where we were from. We found a guy selling cotton candy as big as my head and got some. Then we went back to the hostel and went to bed.

Saturday morning we headed to "Number 1 Bathing Beach," which we had heard was the best in Qingdao. Unfortunately, everyone else in Qingdao had heard that, too. It was packed with young families, old ladies in swimming caps, and old men in speedos. Actually, all men in speedos. Swim trunks haven't really caught on here. On the bright side, this one was sandy. I didn't swim, but walked around with my feet in the water and collected some rocks (shells that weren't in tiny pieces were in short supply). We didn't spend as long at the beach as we had intended because it was so loud and crowded. Instead, we went to the Tsingtao Beer Museum/Brewery. You had to pay to get in but you got a free beer at the end. It was pretty interesting. It was also fun to see the buildings while we wandered through the city. Qingdao used to be a German colony (hence the beer) and there's a lot of very German architecture all over.

After our tour, we went to another part of town to meet Emma and Sherry, two Qingdao natives who lived on my hall last year. They took us to dinner at a really good Korean barbeque place and then showed us around the pier where the olympic sailing happened in 2008. It was awesome to see them and they were great hostesses.

Sadly, the only trains that had seats going back to Beijing today (Sunday) were morning trains, so they couldn't show us around more. Tyler already left, since he got his tickets later than I did and his train left at 8. Mine doesn't leave for a couple of hours, so I have a good amount of time to kill, but since the train station is out of the way of most of the interesting sights, not enough to wander around a city I'm not familiar with and get back in time for my train. I got breakfast and sat on a bench outside the station to eat it while an entire family stared at me. Now I'm at an internet bar next to the train station, and if I thought the last one was sketchy, this one takes the cake. Although it could just be the guy at the counter. There's something about him that screams seedy nightclub owner. Maybe it's his longish, greasy hair, or the fact that he smokes but doesn't tap the ashes off the cigarette so they just get longer and longer until they finally fall onto the desk and he brushes them off onto the floor. It could be the fact that he didn't say a word to me, but answered my questions about how much an hour on a computer costs by holding up fingers, then handed me a little card with the computer number that I could use. Or I could just have an overactive imagination that has not yet been overpowered by my rational mind, which is as yet uncaffinated. There are a lot of options here.

Posted by MAx1992 17:04 Archived in China Comments (2)

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