A Travellerspoint blog

Around the World in 68 Days

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Sorry I haven't been posting much the past week. I finally got sick. I guess I was too triumphant about not getting sick in El Salvador. This has been a long time coming, though. The last time I got sick on a trip was six years ago. Oh well. I'm getting better. As a result, very little of interest has happened, unless you count reading two books in a week and watching an impressive number of Chinese soap operas. Also, don't know if I've mentioned this, but there's a show that's kind of like a combination of the Biggest Loser and Dancing with the Stars, where fat people dance with professional dancers as a weight loss program and have to perform every week and whoever loses the least (and scores the worst) gets kicked off. I'm really amazed that America doesn't have it yet.

Fun change of travel plans, though. My family is currently in Scotland (Mom and Dad are there safely, not sure when Iain's flight is) because Dad had to go for work. So they changed my flight home and I'm now going to Scotland for a couple of weeks before I return to the US. It should be really fun, and I can't wait to see them there. In addition to it being a cool trip, though, I realized something else. I will actually get to fly around the world this summer. I flew from Burlington to San Francisco, then from San Fran to Beijing, and in a couple of weeks I'll fly from Beijing to London, and then I'll fly from Glasgow back to Burlington. Granted, Phileas Fogg had to be rather more inventive than I do, I'm beating him by almost two weeks and having a much more relaxed trip. I'm actually almost more excited about the fact that I'm going all the way around the world than about actually going to Scotland. Almost. No quite.

Anyways, hopefully I'll be out and about more in the next few days. And theoretically I'll be doing another trip this weekend, but we haven't gotten train tickets yet so we'll have to see if we can get any.

Posted by MAx1992 19:28 Archived in China Comments (0)

Chengde

Viajando al azar

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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.

Posted by MAx1992 05:43 Archived in China Comments (2)

Chinese Soaps and Spanish Football

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen the Euro Cup final and want to, don't read this

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Per Iain's request, I have to write a little bit about the Chinese soap operas that I've been watching with Christina and her mom. They're subtitled (in Chinese, but it's still easier to follow) so I can work out a good amount of what's going on based on what I understand and body language. My favorite one is called "我和老妈一起嫁" or "Mom and I are going to get married together" (roughly translated). It's more like a sitcom than a soap because it's really funny, but it's about the youngest daughter whose mother desperately wants her to get married. After she and her fiancee break up, her mother and his father (who are also dating... yeah) trick them into getting back together. It's the easiest to follow, by far. Then there's one called "Undercover" about spies in the war between the Communists and the Nationalists and I never have a clue what's going on because I don't know who's on which side. Aside from those there are three or four others that I've seen. I can usually get the jist on my own, and Christina fills me in on the details. It's good practice. And heck, it's funny. Korean soaps are popular here, too. We saw one that was dubbed into Chinese. It actually took me a while to figure out that it was Korean.

Christina and I woke up at 2:45 a.m. today to see the final of the Euro Cup and if you haven't seen it, you should (whether you like football or not). It was a truly spectacular game where our favorite team (Spain, duh) creamed Italy 4-0. It was beautiful. There were remarkable goals by several players and their goalie, Casillas, is apparently looked upon as one of the best in the history of the game. He had some spectacular saves. This makes Spain the first team to win three consecutive championships (Euro Cup 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro Cup 2012). The only other team that has won three is Germany. Spain also became the first team to ever successfully defend the Euro Cup title. It was quite the victory.

Anyways, the past couple of days have been extremely hot and humid and both Christina and I have been really sleepy, so I really haven't done much other than read and watch TV. I know, I can do that in the US. But when I'm tired wandering around in 90 degree heat and 30% humidity is not my idea of a good time.

Posted by MAx1992 00:02 Archived in China Comments (2)

Summer Heat and Language Barriers

This is like in Mulan...

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We've finally hit the weather that I remembered from China-- hot and humid. Yesterday morning I picked up some baozi on my way to the subway station (I've said it before and I'll say it again, best 2 kuai breakfast ever) and then decided where I wanted to go after I was on the train. I had no plans and no obligations, so I decided to go check out the Bird's Nest. They were going to charge me to go in and I wasn't that excited about a stadium, so I just wandered around the Olympic Park, which is not as exciting as I had hoped, but full of vendors and people who will take your picture in front of the stadium (and then sell it to you). It was extremely hot and I was getting really tired, so I headed for a shady area, where I noticed a smaller, old-looking wall. I walked around it and realized that it was an ancient temple that they kept up right next to where they put the Water Cube. I went in and took some pictures, but had to stop when someone caught me and told me off. It was small but pretty, and I was amazed that it was right next to the enormous modern stadiums and I had never heard of it. Maybe I never paid attention.

From there, I went back to the subway because I had seen what there was to see and the subways are air conditioned. I'm getting much better at asking and understanding directions. I called Tyler to see what he was up to, since it was Saturday so he wasn't working. He said he needed to get his computer fixed, but some of his friends were going to see the Forbidden City, and they'd be happy to meet up with me there. They were very nice, and much like my NSLI-Y trip, were from all over the country. Best of all, none of them spoke Chinese, so I was the translator (on the occasion that one was needed). Not surprisingly, a lot of Chinese tourists wanted pictures with he Westerners, but in this case, they weren't allowed to let people take their picture because they're working for the embassy. One young woman was particularly persistant and kept trying to pose with various members of the group. One girl kept repeating "Do not want" in Chinese, which was clearly not getting the point across, and when she finally tried to say "We can't," the woman explained that she wanted someone else to take a picure of them together, because she thought that the girl meant that she didn't know how to take a picture. I finally worked out how to explain to her that because of their work, they weren't allowed to take pictures with her. My Chinese was definitely awkward, but effective, and she left without another request.

The Forbidden City is absolutely enormous and quite beautiful. It definitely is a must-see. The buildings are all ornate and the garden-like areas are incredible. I had never realized just how big it was, but now I understand why it's a "city" rather than a "palace." We all took a lot of pictures. In a little pagoda, one of the girls wondered what it was used for. Another girl pointed out that, "In Mulan, this is where they pray to the ancestors for guidance." Who said Disney wasn't educational? To be fair, we actually have no idea if that was actually why the pagoda was there. It could just have been decorative. At the exit to the city, we encountered the pushiest vendors I've ever seen. Many of them were really aggressive, going so far as to corner anyone they thought they could persuade to buy something. We made our way out, though, and realized that the subway stops we had arrived at were back at the entrance. So we went around the city, and after a dozen blocks or so, started to wonder if we were actually going toward the subway stops. While a few girls consulted a map, I asked a traffic director for directions. Like I said, I'm a pro at figuring out where the subway is now. It was fun to be able to be useful in a foreign country.

I met Tyler for dinner a couple of stops from where I'm staying (which is on the other side of town from his apartment) because that was where he had gotten his computer fixed. We were just finishing when Christina texted me a heads-up that Line 10, the line that we both needed to take home, was closing early that night. We ran to the subway station, which was Line 13 that would take us to 10, and were informed at the entrance that there were no more trains. We went to an internet cafe to see if we could figure out which lines were running, and eventually gave up and went back to ask someone at the train station. The reply? "Oh, you can take the tain here." Confused, we went in and caught a train to line 10, which was one stop away from mine, but at the opposite end of the line from his. We went our separate ways, Tyler planning to circumnavigate on other lines, and I asked someone how I could walk to the Zhi Chun Li station, because I knew that I could get home from there. The man gave me directions and, just to double check, I ran down to the line 10 train that I needed. I asked the worker down there if there were more trains. She said there weren't. So I went out and at the entrance asked someone else for directins on how to walk to the Zhi Chun Li station, since I had forgotten the first ones. The woman looked at me funny and said, "You can take the train." I told here that there weren't any more trains, and she said that there were. Convinced that I didn't understand her, she grabbed a coworker who spoke English and he informed me that there were still trains running to Zhi Chun Li. I told him what the woman at the train had told me and he just shook his head and let me back into the station without charging me. I went back downstairs and, sure enough, a train came in less than a minute later. When I asked Christina about it, she said that it turned out that the line 10 trains running in our direction were okay, but the ones running the other way were stopped early. I'm still confused about why so many people told me that there were no more trains when clearly there were. I'm pretty sure that I didn't just misunderstand because the first time they said it, Tyler had been with me and his Chinese is really good. Oh well. The mysteries of language barriers.

Posted by MAx1992 02:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

Bookstores, Buildings, and Tea Shops

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Today I took off on my own again, while Christina went around with her mother. Armed with a better idea of where the bookstores Jim had pointed me to were, I went in search of them. The first one I went to was called The Bookworm. It's a bookstore/cafe that's really quite nice. The food and things were very expensive, and I wasn't hungry yet since I had eaten breakfast recently, so I didn't order anything. I did, however, pick up a book called The Peace Correspondent by Gary Marchant, which has turned out to be a great investment. The title comes from the fact that he calls himself a peace correspondent, as opposed to a war correspondent. He's a Canadian journalist who spent quite a bit of time traveling in Asia and the book is filled with stories from his travels. He's very funny and vivid in his descriptions and it's been very fun to read so far. After that I wandered around San Li Tun, which was the shopping district that was in, but it was extremely western and therefore fairly dull, so I headed back to the metro (which, since I don't think I've mentioned it, is super easy to follow). On the way back I walked back through a bunch of embassies and was stopped by a group of European teenagers, all of whom looked a bit confused. The boy who approached me asked, "Hello?" as though unsure that I would speak English and not entirely confident in his own ability. When I responded in English, he relaxed and asked if I could point them to the nearest cinema. I told him I didn't know, but there was probably one in San Li Tun, and explained to them how to get there. Then I went on my way.

The next stop was a bookstore called Page One, which was in the Chinese World Trade Center (or World Mall, I couldn't quite tell which). It was a traditional bookstore, no cafe or anything like that. I wandered around in search of the books that Jim had recommended to me, but couldn't find them and after a while took my leave of that shop and headed off. I decided to go up to the street level to see what was in the area and saw a huge, interestingly shaped building several blocks away. Curious, I wandered over to it, since I didn't have anywher to be. As I walked, I realized that everything around me was varyig shades of grey. The buildings were steel and glass, the sky was darkly overcast, and the streets were black and dirty. When I finally reached the building (which I think is the CCTV broadcasting center, since there were about a dozen CCTV satellites on it), I realized that it was surrounded by flowers that were the brightest thing I had seen outside of the stores in the mall. I headed further down the street and there came an abrupt end to the shiny glass buildings. Suddenly it was run-down storefronts and little street stalls, many with signs that were once brightly colored but now dull from dust. It was an incredible juxtaposition. There were also a bunch of signs along the road around the construction that was going on (between the steel and the stalls) that were full of pictures of a grand, shining city, which fell rather short in the dull, overcast Beijing that seemed to surround me today.

After that I had considered coming back, but I realized that I was at a subway stop where I could get to Line 1, which would take me to Tiananmen. Despite the grey day, I wanted to check it out, even if I went back later for better pictures. So I got on that train, which was packed, and headed off to see the square. I got to the square and took a few pictures, trying to ignore the stares I was getting. I wound up in front of Mao's mausoleum (which is enormous) and while I was there a Chinese woman approached me with a "Hello." I responded in Chinese and she and her friend both were amazed. "You speak Chinese?" I said that I spoke a little, and they wanted to know where I had studied it and for how long ("Only a year?!") and where I was from and what I was doing in Beijing. They couldn't believe I wasn't afraid to travel by myself to a foreign country. Occasionally they would speak English, but most of it was Chinese. Finally, they invited me to tea on a nearby street. The street reminded me of Chinatown because it began with a big, intricate gate. They took me to a tea shop and we sat down at a beautiful wooden table that they explained was handmade. We sat and drank tea and chatted for over an hour. They quickly stopped trying to speak English unless I didn't understand something that they knew how to translate. I know that I was slow and awkward when I talked, but I was proud of myself for how much I understood. I've gotten to the point where my biggest frustration is my microscopic vocabulary, but that will just take time. Unfortunately it will take a fair amount of time. Oh well. I guess that's part of the fun. After all of this, they dropped me off at the subway station and I headed home from there.

Posted by MAx1992 05:54 Archived in China Comments (2)

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