Viajando al azar
Well, I haven't updated in a few days because not a whole lot happened until now. I saw the Summer Palace (which was beautiful, I actually liked it better than the Forbidden City) and ran into a ton of French people. The grounds were amazing and it was really nice after spending so much time in the city. I spent a long time just wandering, relaxing, and soaking everything in, and enjoying how much I seemed to understand.
Then Tyler and I decided to take a weekend trip, because he desperately wanted to get out and I was game to travel. We wanted to visit Emma and Sherry in Qingdao, but they asked us to come another weekend because they're busy this weekend, so we decided to go to Datong. I offered to get train tickets, so Thursday afternoon I headed over to the ticket booth. Sadly, there were no tickets for the train we wanted to take, and because of Tyler's job we were restricted in when we could go and come back. That evening, Tyler went to the one near his house and asked about a few places, all of which were completely sold out. Yay for tourist season. Finally he said, "Okay, where do you have tickets to?" Their answer? "Chengde." Neither of us had ever heard of it, but Christina's mom said it was a nice place and tickets were cheap, and it was a short train ride. Tyler got his tickets and I got mine (alone, in Chinese; it was a proud moment) and we booked beds at the one hostel listed on hostelworld.com (Ming's Dynasty Hostel, and yes, the owner's name is Ming). So this morning we got up early and headed for the train station and hopped a train out here.
Because we had bought our tickets separately, we were in different cars. I wound up sitting with a 15-year-old girl travelling with her mother and uncle. They were from Xi'an, visiting Beijing for vacation, and taking a weekend trip out to Chengde. For a few awkward minutes we all sat quietly until a few words in Chinese from me encouraged the beginnings of a conversation. The mother told the girl to practice her English with me, which embarrassed her into hiding behind the window curtain, but after some gentle encouragement, she got braver and started chatting half in English and half (due to my persistance) in Chinese. I managed to practice a fair amount and was proud that, despite how awkward and slow I know I was, they understood me. We talked for most of the four-and-a-half hour train ride, covering everything from ancient Chinese history to gay marriage to "Who is your favorite movie star?" It was pretty awesome. They taught me a number of Chinese words and the mother was astounded that at 19 I was travelling alone in China and after studying Chinese for only one year I was comfortable talking (her daughter had studied English for 9 years and while she wasn't bad, it took a lot of effort to get her talking at first). The countryside was gorgeous, and a huge contrast to Beijing. It was incredibly green, men and women with hand tools working the cultivated fields that border on wild vegetation around crumbling brick houses with steel roofs. The disparity in living conditions is huge.
When we got to Chengde, we realized that foreigers are rare faces in this area. Ming, the hostel owner, was really nice and helpful and, having lived in the US for several years, spoke great English. The hostel just so happens to be in a very nice hotel, so while there are four to a room, the beds are comfortable and the rooms quite impressive. We dropped our stuff in our room and headed off to see the monastery that is here. Unfortunately the directions that Ming gave us for the busses neglected to mention that when we changed busses we had to go to a different stop, too. Locals are extremely nice, though, and a woman that we asked walked us to the stop we needed and made sure we got on okay. The monastery was awesome, and we toured around and took pictures. We met a monk briefly and bought some souveniers and almost got into a debate about Tibetan politics (which we decided to steer clear of). One woman tried to rip us off (after telling Tyler that someting was 40 kuai, she changed it to 120... not sure how she thought that would work) but generally the prices were reasonable and we got what we wanted.
On the way back we stopped off for dinner at a noodle shop and then wandered around to look at some shops, but things close down at around 7. Oops. We're going to check out the bar street in a bit to see if there's anything going on there. So we went back to the bus stop and checked out which line we wanted. Not sure which stop was closest to our hostel, we decided to go to the train station, which we knew was walking distance. We briefly debated if the bus was going the right way, but decided that they usually make loops and we were in no rush, so we got on and chatted, paying no attention to where the bus was going. Finally, everyone but us got off, and the driver started telling us that we needed to get off. We told her we wanted to go to the train station. She told us that that was the end of the line, and we had to go to the stop across the street. So, laughing, we got off at the very edge of town, with grey buildings and an almost deserted street as the sun was starting to set and waited with an old man at the other stop until the right bus came along and we took it to a stop right across the street from our hostel.
We went back to our room to drop our souveniers off and met the other girl who is staying there, a French woman probably our age who is studying Chinese in Beijing and, like us, came to Chengde to get away from the city for a bit. She got here yesterday and apparently had to spend the night in the train station because the hotel that her friend had booked for her wouldn't take foreigners (Tyler says it's something to do with foreign affairs) and she didn't find the hostel we're at until this morning. I have to admit, that would have been scary. Like I said, there are very few foreigners, and while locals have been extremely friendly so far, I feel like it makes us slightly better targets. She was alright with it though, and after her Chinese class is over for the summer she's planning to travel around China, making a loop out west, then down south, and finally back up to Beijing. It sounds awesome.
Since the hotel doesn't have wifi, we wandered down the street to an internet bar, which is where we are now. It's a small room that smells like cigarette smoke and is filled with people on computers. I asked for and paid for a computer on my own because Tyler knows I'm here to practice and only helps me by translating to English when people are talking too fast for me to keep up. I have to talk on my own. The man had no issues understanding me, though, and answered a couple of questions, even though I don't think I caught everything he said. One man was eavesdropping on us and was surprised that we spoke Chinese (he obviously didn't speak English). He asked where we were from and we told him to guess. He guessed Canada, which made us laugh, and then he guessed European. We hesitated, because we had considered pretending to be from someplace other than the US, and he moved on to Russia, but we told him that we were Spanish. He was reasonably shocked by that, although I'm not sure why that was more strange than Canada, and Tyler and I promptly ditched English for Spanish when we talked to each other.
So that is the story about how I wound up in an internet cafe in Chengde, surrounded by Chinese people who think I'm a Spaniard.