Monday, August 27, 2007

Hong Kong is a fabulous place

Scott and I have been in Hong Kong since August 22 and it's just been a wonderful time since the moment of our arrival. We're here for our teaching orientation program with Maryknoll, a Catholic missionary group based in a quiet neighborhood of HK called Stanley. The Maryknoll House, where we're staying, is a three- wing brick mansion built in the 1930's. It's set up on a hill, so the side of the house where my bedroom (I have a balcony!) is commands an excellent view of the harbor framed by palm trees and mountains. After the rigors of traveling in the mainland, Maryknoll's delicious food, effective air conditioning, and American washer and dryer are much appreciated. They even have a collection of about 1,000 movies and a DVD player for us to use.

We arrived to HK about a week before orientation began since our student visas for China were running out. For the past several days, we've had the Maryknoll House pretty much to ourselves except for a few resident priests. We've also been free to explore Hong Kong, which is an extremely beautiful, diverse, and exciting city. Since HK was a British colony up until 1997, it's also a very orderly place: queue lines are set up everywhere, you must stand on the right on escalators, and there are even signs instructing people with a cough to wear masks. Very nice change of pace, I must say.

The first couple of days were spent excitedly consuming much-missed foods like sandwiches and cheeseburgers (they have an Outback here!) and exploring the city's many gigantic, upscale shopping malls. It's nice to find clothes in a size medium that fit me, because in China I could only fit in the "gigantic person" sizes (XL, XXL). We made a trip out to Lantau Island, a less developed part of Hong Kong with open beaches and hiking trails. There's a "people escalator" on Hong Kong Island, the main island, to help people with the climb up the large hill in the middle of downtown. We rode the escalator and then took a tram up to Victoria's Peak to take pictures of the famous Hong Kong skyline, and then had lunch at the top at Bubba Gump's Shrimp Company (random!) Each night at 8 pm, there's a light show across the bay and we watched that one evening, enjoying the lovely view over the water.

The Maryknoll House has been just great, as well. The priests are a lot of fun, and I've really enjoyed talking with them. It's like spending two weeks with a house full of well-traveled grandpas with entertaining stories. Yesterday, we had our welcome brunch at the Hong Kong Yacht Club. I was sitting next to a priest whose pre-Maryknoll life consisted of service in the Vietnam War and then home to work odd jobs on farms, in mines, etc. He told me a story about the first time he went to a buffet- style lunch at a nice restaurant. The menu said they were serving chocolate mousse, so he thought "Hm, that sounds interesting" and looked all around the buffet for moose meat covered in chocolate. When he couldn't find it, he asked the servers, "Where's the chocolate moose?" I thought it was really funny...

Orientation started today, and it's proving to be very interesting and useful information. There are about 10 other volunteers who also recently graduated from college, and about 10 more older teachers. Scott and I are the only Maryknollers at our school in Zhanjiang, but there are two women- one of them a nun- at orientation who will be teaching at a nearby college in the same city. Two additional, more experienced volunteers are already in Zhanjiang, so they'll be able to show us the ropes when we get there.

I've heard a little bit about Zhanjiang from other people who have taught there in the past. Supposedly it's one of China's '"green cities" and has relatively clean air due to its proximity to the ocean. There's a McDonald's, a KFC, a Wal-Mart, and a Marriott there. Zhanjiang was originally two separate cities, but now together with a central industrial section the two parts have come together to form one city. Scott and I will be on "the less developed" part of town, whatever that means (I'm a little nervous). The other section is about a 15 minute bus ride, and that's where most of the restaurants, shops, and the water front are.

Well, orientation is starting back up in a few minutes. I'll write more later!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Emei Shan... and Back Again

After a couple of days recovering from Jiuzhai Gou in Chengdu, we decided to venture out again for an overnight trip to Emei Shan, a mountain about 3 hours outside of the city. We rode the bus there Saturday morning and checked into our hostel around 2 pm. As soon as we arrived at the mountain, we knew that it just wasn't going to work out this time. The Chinese tourists immediately began to stare and make loud comments as we struggled up endless steps in the humidity to make it to a number of Buddhist temples, all of which were nearly identical to the ten or so I have already seen. We halfheartedly walked around for a while, got lost (as usual), admitted defeat, and went back to the hostel. The rest of the evening was spent huddling in the room reading and watching TV.

After about an hour of walking around the mountain, we had both agreed to cut the trip short and head back to Chengdu in the morning instead of returning for some more miserable hiking Sunday afternoon.

This morning, we were both so glad to get back to Chengdu. I've become very lazy during this little vacation, which is mostly due to the many attractive Western qualities of Chengdu. Over the past couple of weeks, I've spoken Chinese only when absolutely necessary; usually I prefer to just speak in English and gesture to people until they understand what I'm trying to say. I've eaten a total of three Chinese meals since leaving Tianjin August 5: it's a cop-out, I know... but I figure after arriving in Zhanjiang, I'll be able to look back fondly on all the chimichangas, nachos, spaghetti, and sandwiches I ate in Chengdu and it will help me survive the first couple weeks of fried scorpions and starfish or whatever.

Basically, Chengdu has provided a comfort zone I didn't think I'd find in just two weeks. There are two main reasons for this: Sim's Cozy Guest House (our hostel), and the food (which I know I've already raved about to no end).

Sim's is without a doubt the most comfortable, COZY place I have ever stayed. It is wonderful and feels like a home away from home. The owner, a wiry, 30's-ish Korean man, is here every day, doing everything from performing managerial duties to bussing tables. His two daughters are usually playing outside in the courtyard, adorable skinny little things with pigtails and clothes that are always some shade of pink. An orange tabby cat roams around begging for food and lets people pet him whenever. Loads of interesting people are everywhere: Australians, Americans, British, Koreans, Chinese, Israelis, Singaporeans (?), etc. Every single detail imaginable has been paid attention to in order to maximize comfort. There's a music library computer for guests to refresh their mp3 players' collections; a cute little bar serving reasonably priced drinks (I got a Bacardi and Coke for $2); the bunk beds in the dorm rooms have soft mattresses and clean, puffy white comforters; the front desk has hair dryers available for free... and the list goes on and on. I kind of wish I could teach English in Chengdu and just live here for a year! It would be pretty cheap... a dorm room costs $5/bed/ night.

And, the FOOD in Chengdu, of course. There's a chain of restaurants we discovered here called Grandma's Kitchen. The flagship is called Grandma's Kitchen; it's kind of like an Applebee's with sandwiches, burgers, Caesar salads, brownies a la mode, etc. There is also the Red Brick, owned by the same people, which serves up delicious and cheap Italian foods.

A few nights ago, we discovered a third Grandma's Kitchen restaurant, called Del Mar. Del Mar is located in an amazingly nice section of the city which looks just like Winter Park Village. BMWs and Mercedes line the street, which contains upscale apartments and cute little boutiques... I even saw a wine bar there! Anyway, Del Mar is a Mediterranean restaurant, which means they serve a mixture of Greek, Italian, and Spanish foods. The menu is very diverse, including such hard to find items as tomato and mozzeralla salad, baked eggplant, and an array of tapas. The only thing missing is a hummus appetizer (which we suggested they add!)

I've written before about Peter's Tex-Mex Grill. Tonight will be the fourth time we'll visit there.. it is wonderful. Last time we went, there was a table full of elderly Southern people. It was so good to hear the accent again. One man was wearing a Krispy Kreme polo, and another woman drawled, "Ah'll have the burr-gurr. Whut comes awn thaat?"In addition to great and fresh Mexican food, there's also Mary Moo's homemade ice cream. I had the Panda Trax last time (the same as Moose Tracks). There is plenty of flair on the walls at Peter's, including little wooden signs with sayings like "Texans Don't Lie," "Texan Stories Told Here," and "Life's Too Short Not to Live it in Texas."

Well, all this writing about food has made me hungry. Time for some Peter's (again!) :)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Jiuzhai Gou & Huanglong Springs

*On the left is me at Huanglong. The right is a lake at Jiuzhai Gou.*

Saturday morning at 7:45 Scott and I left Chengdu for a trip to Jiuzhai Gou, which is a valley about 12-hours outside of Chengdu. Jiuzhai Gou is commonly billed as "Heaven on Earth" by the tourism industry; the name is usually accompanied by pictures of beautiful, turquoise lakes against a strikingly blue sky and lovely mountains. Needless to say, we were very excited about getting some fresh air and taking in some of Sichuan Province's famed natural scenery.
We boarded the bus armed with plenty of snacks, having learned from the awful 35-hour train ride from Beijing to Shanghai during which we ate almost nothing but five Ramen noodle bowls each. The bus ride was an experience in itself because of two factors: the scenery and the bus driver. A few hours outside of Chengdu, the views became spectacular as we would further and further up into the mountains. I was especially excited to notice a blue sk emerging as the Chengdu smog evaporated... after spending two months in one dirty city or another, it's something I've come to miss.

Between glimpses out the window, the rest of my time was kept occupied by the simple struggle for survival and desire to stay in my seat. Our bus driver seemed to forget he was at the wheel of a 35-passenger tour bus and drove our vehicle up steep, winding mountain paths pretty much motorcycle-style. Apparently the road to Jiuzhai Gou has three lanes, if you include the improvised one in the middle that's used for passing and honking at other gigantic tour buses.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside shack; we had just enough time to down some vegetables and rice before getting back on the road. As we drove further into the mountains, peasants hawking photo ops with their pet yaks appeared at each rest station. They lured us tourists with tantalizing (and very hard to resist!) calls of "Halllooo! Yagr Yagr Yagr!!"

Finally around 8 pm, Scott and I made it to Jiuzhai Gou, hailed a cab, and made it to the hotel... only to find they'd given away the private room we'd booked. Since there is virtually no online booking or credit card payment system in most Chinese tourist destinations, an evening arrival usually means the hotel will have forfeited your reservation by the time you arrive. So, the first night we sucked it up and stayed in a dorm-style room.
Monday morning we headed to the park. The first day at Jiuzhai Gou was one of the best days of my life. The scenery was literally breathtaking, and each stop was even more beautiful than the one before it. The pictures I'd seen of the place did not come close to doing it justice. The water was unbelievably clear and a deep turquoise color; picturesque rapids led to exquisite waterfalls suddenly popping up out of nowhere; the mountain slopes surrounding the valley were green and craggy at the tops. We had such a great time walking around taking pictures! It was difficult to tear myself away from each "scenic spot," but each time we reached the next one on the map the same thing happened all over again!

This trip also acquainted me with the extremely aggressive phenomenon known as The Chinese Tourist. Jostling, pushing, yelling... they will resort to anything if it means snapping the perfect picture. It seemed that most of the time "the perfect picture" meant inserting themselves into the exact space in which Scott and I were simultaneously taking a photo. Countless times, we'd find a wide open stretch of railing away from the horde of frantic photographers... set up to take a picture... and look up to find hordes of Chinese people descending on our spot. The result was lots of "QUICK STAND THERE AND I'LL TAKE YOUR PICTURE!" and then dodging out of the way before the masses could reach us.
For the Chinese tourists, Scott and I were just as popular backdrops as the scenery. Sometimes people would ask for photos with me, but mostly they would just try to take the picture when I wasn't looking. Each time Scott took my picture, at least a couple of other people followed suit. I couldn't sit down in front of a waterfall, lake, etc. for more than a few seconds without having a crowd gather asking to take a picture with me. At one point, we sat down along the path to eat some snacks, and people crowded around to watch the show, pointing and talking excitedly. Apart from the loud cries of "HAHLOO" I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I think it was something along the lines of, "Look! The monkeys are eating!"
Tuesday we went back to the park to explore the other half. We had a harder time getting away from the crowds on the main path, so we decided to trailblaze and found a more secluded path to travel between the main sights. We soon discovered that the so-called "secluded path" was actually no longer in use and overgrown, but for some reason we kept on hiking. Further along, sections had been destroyed by rockslides and there was no longer any planking, so we were forced to continue balance beam- style. We were determined though, so we kept going. After about an hour of walking with no sign of civilization other than the park's shuttle buses, we got desperate and tried to flag one down. No one would stop, even though one passed every couple of minutes! We kept walking... and walking... and walking... all the while unsuccessfully attempting to hitch a ride on one of the tour buses we'd paid $15 to use. Finally, after a total of three hours and almost eight miles of the hellish trail, a bus rescued us.
After THAT long, long day, next on the agenda was a trip to Huanglong Springs, a three hour bus ride outside of Jiuzhai Gou. Of course, by the time we got to the station to buy bus tickets, they were sold out. We caught a ride on a rickety old bus to a small rural town halfway between Jiuzhai Gou and Huanglong, then took a cab the extra hour to Huanglong. Upon arriving at the springs around 10:30 am, we discovered that the last bus back to Jiuzhai Gou departed at 3 pm. So, in four and a half hours we hiked four miles round trip up and down a mountain and furiously took as many pictures as possible. The trip was well worth the hassle: Huanglong is home to exotic-looking, multi-colored mineral pools that were just as breathtaking as the scenery at Jiuzhai Gou.
In the end, we made it back to Chengdu on schedule... despite my worst fears, we survived our trip without getting stuck in Jiuzhai Gou all night or being marooned at Huanglong. I enjoyed everything, but I think I lost a few pounds in water weight from the stress of it all! You can't tell from looking at the pictures though, and I guess that's the most important thing!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Panda Bears and Giant Buddha

I'm in Chengdu and having a really good time so far! I like it here better than Tianjin. The city is much more tourist-friendly and seems to be cleaner and easier to get around. Not to mention all the panda billboards, souveniers, and murals that are all over town!

Wednesday we made a trip to the Chengdu Panda Research Base, home to about 60 giant pandas as well as some red pandas. I was in heaven! The research base is very nice, set up like a large zoo. Each panda habitat is spacious and equipped with ample trees and wooden structures for climbing. Later in the morning, most of the pandas were moved indoors into the air-conditioning, because it was too hot outside for them! Whether indoors or out, everybody is supplied with an all-you-can-eat bamboo buffet all day long.

My favorite part of the day was our visit to the "Panda Kindergarten," where six cubs were rowdily wrestling and playing together on a huge jungle- gym outside. It was so cute that it was difficult to take pictures quickly enough. The panda reserve also has a section dedicated to premature newborn cubs, so we got to see two tiny little baby pandas in incubators. A few times, the cubs rolled around a little bit and stuck their tongues out... awwwwww....

After the panda reserve, we walked around downtown Chengdu's shopping center and found a Subway for lunch! This may not be anything special in the United States, but after seven weeks without a sandwich, Subway tasted amazingly good. That night for dinner, we had a great Italian meal, which is another type of food I've been craving throughout my stay in China. Half the reason I love Chengdu so much is because of the food.

Thursday Scott and I rode the bus to Leshan to see the world's biggest Buddha. The bus turned out to be an air-conditioned tour bus: much nicer than the old, beat-up city bus I'd been expecting. We had a "bus attendant" (like a flight attendant) who made sure everyone was comfortable by adjusting air vents and armrests and handing out blankets. She read all announcements in Chinese and English (even though Scott and I were the only English speakers on the bus) and at the end of the ride, everyone got a complimentary pair of...


Once we arrived at the Buddha, Scott and I waited in line for about two hours to get close enough to him (him being the Buddha) to take pictures. "Waiting in line" as a tall American couple in China is an interesting experience... especially since the Chinese are not used to having an orderly line and will use every opportunity to cram in ahead of the line. We entertained ourselves by taking pictures of every Chinese person we saw taking our picture and staring back at everyone who stared at us. At one point, we saw a very overweight, blond, red-faced woman who was probably from Wisconsin. She actually reminded me a lot of my family's old 16-pound calico cat, Candy. Scott and I felt bad for her: she just looked so distressed and anxious; but at least everyone stopped looking at us for a minute when she walked by!

We snapped our pictures of the Buddha while avoiding being pushed into the river by overzealous Chinese tourists and headed back to Chengdu on the bus. Long day!

Today we took it easy: sleeping in and sandwiches at Grandma's Kitchen, another great American food restaurant. Tomorrow morning we are headed to Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong, two parks located about 10 hours' bus ride outside of Chengdu. We'll be gone until Wednesday, after which we'll be back at Sim's for about a week.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


This morning I woke up refreshed, ready to explore Chengdu. Upon stepping outside, I was pleasantly surprised by the hostel, which I'd been too tired and grimy to notice last night. It's called Sim's Cozy Guest House, and it certainly lives up to the name. The place was founded by a Korean man and his Japanese wife, both of whom have backpacked extensively throughout Asia and noticed there was a lot to be desired in many of the hostels they stayed in. Sim's Cozy Guest House is a place that pays a lot of attention to all those small details that make a huge difference in a comfortable stay. On the grounds are a small library, a very helpful travel agency, clean bathrooms and showers, laundry facilites, a bar, internet access, and a restaurant serving Western- style food. The layout reminds me a little bit of the Swiss Family Robinson house at Disney World: it's got a lot of winding staircases, rugged-looking dark wood, and random fountains with comfortable yet woodsy recliners and benches to sit on. Even better, it's incredibly cheap. Last night we stayed in a dorm-style room with four beds for about $4 per person. Tonight, we're in an air-conditioned double room for $8 per person. Scott and I both love it here, and decided it would be our home base for the next couple of weeks.

After a McDonald's lunch and a consultation with the Sim's travel agent, we explored Chengdu's Culture Street (lots of panda souveneirs) and a beautiful temple surrounded by extensive gardens. For dinner we decided to ride the bus to Pete's Tex-Mex restaurant to assuage the six-week old craving we both had for some chips and salsa (Tianjin didn't have a single Mexican place)! On the bus, we met two Canadian backpackers who were also headed to Petes's. The four of us shared a table and told stories about our travels around the crazy country of China. And wow- quesadillas, nine-layer dip, chips, salsa, and an Oreo Flurry NEVER, NEVER have tasted so good! These are my staple foods at home (somehow I'm not fat) and I hadn't had any of them since June! It was amazing. Pete's even had bathrooms labeled "Cowboy" and "Cowgirl" and a giant mural of Mexican people painted on the wall.

So far, I'm enjoying Chengdu. Tomorrow we are going to the panda breeeding center... can't wait!

I'd better see a lot of really cute pandas in Chengdu...

The FSU study abroad program ended Sunday, so we left Tianjin at 6:45 am to catch the train to Beijing. From Beijing, we took the 11:20 K train to Chengdu, what was supposed to be a 30-hour ride. Chengdu is located in Sichuan Province, the home of the giant panda. There are several giant panda research bases outside Chengdu, one of which was the first stop on our agenda.

Getting the tickets for this trip was quite a struggle. Our travel agent at TFSU, "Herbert," proved to be somewhat of an imbecile. Instead of receiving our soft-sleeper tickets on the more modern T-train on July 31 as promised, Herbert delivered K-train hard sleeper seats to us no earlier than 11:30 the night before we would depart Tianjin.

We were worried about the K-train, which is an older and less comfortable model than the T-train. Our room was about 7'x10' and held two columns of three bunk beds each. The head space above each bunk got narrower going up: Scott had a top bunk and could only sit up halfway without hitting the ceiling. Each bed was about seven feet long and less than three feet wide. Our bunkmates were a woman and her three-year old daughter traveling home to Tibet, and an elderly man with his son and daughter-in-law, going home to Chengdu. Everyone was polite and courteous, but the Chinese don't hold the same regard for personal space that I'm used to. There were many invasions into my personal space bubble (which a lot of you know is very, very large). In an attempt to keep everybody calm, the train speakers broadcasted "relaxing" Kenny G renditions of such classics as Unchained Melody, I Will Always Love You, and What Child is This. Random!

Nonetheless, time went by. We played cards, read, chatted with people who wanted to practice their English, and got a decent night's sleep. The next day, I looked out the window and we were in the mountains! The scenery was beautiful: little streams ran amongst the hills and the lush greenery was dotted with quaint little farmhouses. I was really enjoying looking out the window and reading my book, congratulating myself on my good attitude about the train ride when, around 12:30 Monday afternoon:


By the time the train got underway again, my attitude had changed into one of complete hatred for the train and all the people around me in the train. The little girl who had previously been endearing and cute turned into an annoying little monster; the cozy bunk became hellishly hard, cramped, and dirty; the friendly Chinese people on the train became one mass of irritatingly curious faces. Suddenly I wanted to get off, desperately!

To further complicate matters, we were supposed to check into our hostel by 8 pm or we risked losing our room. After a series of attempted phone calls from the train to our helpless travel agent in Tianjin, he promised me that he ha secured an extended check-in until 11 pm. We rolled into Chengdu around 10:40. After pushing through the seething masses of people in the train station while clutching my purse to avoid pickpocketers, we wrangled a taxi from the hundreds waiting outside the stations and managed to get to the hostel by 10:55... only to find they had given our room away. Luckily, the hostel had dorm-style rooms left. Not quite as nice as what we had originally booked, but by that point we didn't care. We hadn't showered in two days and were both so tired we could barely stand up. I was so grateful just to have a bed! I made it to Chengdu- but all I'm saying, for all that effort- I'd better see a lot of really cute pandas this week!