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Despite the fact that freelancing is often a bit stressful and I’m still learning the ropes towards increasing sanity, I have had so many awesome opportunities working for various companies. This past weekend was definitely one of the best. I got to take a research trip to Inner Mongolia, and check out the environmental issues of desertification, water scarcity, energy production, and wildlife. The trip started off when a lot of unknowns. What were Jeff and Bright, my travel companions, going to be like? How long would it take to get there? What is Inner Mongolian food like? So, with a backpack and a bus ticket, I headed out on my adventure!

For those of you that don’t know, Inner Mongolia or Nei Menggu, is an autonomous region IN China. Its north of Beijing, but stretches widely to the East and West and comprises 12% of China’s total landmass. The official languages of Inner Mongolia are Chinese and Mongolian, and Mongolians use a Cyrillic form of writing that looks drastically different from Chinese, and is not based on the character system. From what I had heard in Beijing, Mongolians were known for eating a lot of meat and cheese, and for their vast grasslands.

So, I met Jeff at the bus station, and we got on what was supposed to be a 7-hour bus ride. 8-hours later, we saw a sign that read 100Km to Chi Feng, so we figured we were making pretty good time. We started going down half washed out dirt roads and began to wonder if our driver was lost. Turns out, he was lost, but the dirt roads are unavoidable on the way to Chifeng. I have never seen such a huge bus navigate such small and bumpy roads. We reached one section of road that was washed out, so we had to turn around, which landed us in a country-road traffic jam that took an hour to get out of, simply because other buses kept piling in and we couldn’t turn around. Then, we made our way back through fog so thick I put my head in my lap and tried to sleep. We finally made it to Chifeng over 12 hours later.

Upon arrival we were swarmed by the typical masses trying to offer us taxis and accommodations. Fortunately Jeff speaks really good Chinese, and called the hotel where we had a reservation. Oh, that hotel is in another city? Hm, driver also not here to pick us up, shocking that he didn’t wait 5 extra hours! Phew, random guy from the Chinese Press is telling us that he will get us a room. And…he did. Our lovely room consisted of one single bed, cigarette butts all over the floor and a few empty drink containers, but it was 4am and we couldn’t be picky. Jeff and I became very close co-workers on our first meeting, literally.

We slept 5 hours and met our local guide, Bright, who explained that the driver had been waiting for us since 9pm the night before and fell asleep in his car. We all got breakfast at a local restaurant and headed to Wudan, our first stop. In Wudan we checked into a pretty bad, but much nicer room and started off to visit the Yulong desert. It took a while as the main roads in Wudan were all being torn up, but we finally found a dirt road out to the area. Yulong is quite beautiful; a mix of lakes, grass and large sand dunes. It is also China’s fourth largest desert. Our guide explained that the area use to be lush and fertile before the cultural revolution, but due to poor farming practices and mismanagement of the land, it had turned into a desert. Now major actions are being taken by the local government and people to restore the land, including subsidies that are paid to residents for not letting their animals graze. We visited a local family who own a farm and culture center of sorts in the desert, and I had my first cup of authentic Inner Mongolian tea. Loved it. Salty milk tea, I drank three cups. It also happened that Xia Guohua, the district mayor of Chifeng city was visiting the family, as he was related in some way. His English was pretty good and he drunkenly chatted us up for a while, and took photos with us.

The most exciting part of the day was when the daughter of the farm took us on a tour of their land. It was really stunning, complete with small, sandy rivers and large sand dunes. We managed to get stuck in the middle of the cow fields, and had to go under, around and over-top a whole lot of barbed wire, which took quite a team effort. When we finally emerged, we wound our way through corn fields to get back home. After the hike we stayed for dinner in the family’s ger, a typical Inner-Mongolian-style tent where we ate everything from local veggies and blood sausage to some animal’s liver. The family sang and toasted us, and we had a good time…but I couldn’t manage to eat enough to be full. They also tried to make us drink a lot by saying it was offensive if we didn’t have at least three drinks, so I drank three tea-sized cups full of beer, but was not happy about it!

The next day we stopped briefly at a museum and Mongolian school in the town of Keqi, and then made our way to the grasslands. We visited a few local families and their ger campsites, drank really strong milk wine and ate some Mongolian cheese. It tasted a little chalky to me, despite dipping it in the milk tea, but Jeff may have actually fallen in love. There has been a lot of investment made into wind energy technologies in the grasslands, and we passed by quite a few fields of windmills. Apparently these things cost 2million RMB each to build! I really loved the look and feel of the gers, it was like camping, only better.

Next we headed to Dalinor lake, which is huge and used to be known for its swan population. Unfortunately the swans have recently stopped using the lake as much for their nesting grounds, and the lake is actually receding at a quick rate (although I couldn’t make out the numbers from the conversation in Chinese.) It was starting to rain at that point, so we made a brief stop at a mini-mountain in the middle of the grasslands. I’m sure there is a name for this type of structure, but you can see in the photo. We ran into an awesomely decked out local with his horse, who was happy to stop for a few photos, and headed back for dinner at the ger. Dinner was much better than the previous night, and we were entertained by deafeningly loud traditional Mongolian songs, followed by K-TV. That night we slept in bug-filled gers with the rain pattering down on the roof.

The next morning we ate some awesome sweet bread for breakfast and drove a long way back to Chifeng, and hopped on a bus that actually took seven hours to return. Overall it was awesome to discover a little bit about Inner Mongolian culture and see such pretty scenery; quite a nice break from Beijing. I only took one shower the entire time and have never been so close to having dreadlocks, but I was lucky to have some very entertaining and positive companions who didn’t complain about the smell. The distances are quite long in between the cities we visited, but I would certainly recommend visiting the desert and grasslands.

Thunder, thunder, thunder cats!

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I’m at Lily’s American diner again. The internet is down in our apartment because both of my roommates are traveling and forgot to pay the bill. I feel a little bit like an incapable 5-year old because I don’t even know which company we use, and I tried to call a number Er Wei gave me to give the internet company money but I could only understand about 10% of what the guy was asking me. I tried to get a friend from work to call, but apparently we set-up some special cell phone service and I have to visit the actual location to pay the bill. Well, that’s all fine and well but even if I make it there, I don’t have any documentation about our account and they probably don’t have an English-speaker on staff. I was feeling pretty darn good about my ability to navigate Beijing a few days ago, as I actually got quite a few errands done in a single day, including buying a collar with a bell, small dog’s leash and carrying case for Tutu! However, changing my cell phone plan and getting pants altered are still on the to-do list, which I am not looking forward to. These things are starting to frustrate me rather than be part of a fun challenge.

Here are some photos of Tutu the teenager, her new loot and Tutu doing yoga You can also see the leash I set-up in attempt to litter-train her and so she can be out of her cage but not jumping on me, my computer or food when I am trying to get things done.

More updates to come from Anne’s trip to Beijing!

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The combination of the trip home and a visit from Anne Baughman has caused me to reflect a bit on the time that David and I have spent in China. I just read David’s post from our first trip to Beijing, and can still recall the totally different perspective with which I saw this city. Everything seemed like a confusing mystery, but I have to say that David did a pretty incredible job orienting himself with so much uncertainty.

We have been here for almost a year and a half, and our impressions of the country have certainly changed in many ways. Almost nothing is shocking anymore…at least about Beijing, and it gets more and more difficult to maintain a fresh and objective eye with which to write the blog. I have received a few comments that the beginning of our blog was really the most interesting, and I have to agree. Mostly I think it was easier to present the fascinating things in China when everything was new. Now I see a lot of things on a daily basis that I’m sure would blow your minds, but I have seen them so many times that it has become commonplace in my mind.

Although part of the essence of this blog is our personal journey, growth and transformation, I still hope to use it as a tool with which to illuminate Asian culture in comparison to our Western home. With that in mind, I am trying to re-discover my outsider perspective on Beijing.

The thing about China that fascinates me even more than the food is the language. I don’t know why, but I never assumed that Chinese would use the same general thoughts and ideas in their speech as in other languages. I guess my perception was that because the language was created so many years ago, the whole concept of communication would have evolved differently. Stupid of me to assume that language doesn’t evolve with society, but that was my perception. Sure, there are different colloquialisms and expressions, but in general you can translate speech using the same ideas of a word. To illustrate my point, I never assume that words like “yet, because and still” would be used in the same manner to express different states of happening…but more or less, they are!

Other than tones and characters, a major difference between English and Chinese is that the Chinese use WAY less words. If brevity is the soul of wit, the Chinese must be the masters of wittiness. This (and the lack of conjugations and tenses) accounts for much of the perception that English-speaking Chinese speak like cavemen. I recently read a funny article that said something to the effect of:

The way a Chinese person says I want to take a cab: Da di qu.
The way an American says they want a cab: I think I would like, if it’s convenient and not too expensive, to call company to send a driver to the corner of my apartment and the store around eight pm or a few minutes before, to avoid rush-hour and get there quickly if that’s ok.

I have also racked my brain to think of a few funny Chinglish phrases that make a lot more sense now that I have a vague understanding of Chinese:

-If I ask, “Why?” in the classroom, students will often respond, “No, why” instead of “No reason” because in Chinese “Bu Weishenme” or “No why” is a perfectly acceptable response.

-Almost all Chinese people know how to say hello, bye bye and Oh my god! Which is apparently a phrase from English that they simply love. Children also say “Oh my ladygaga” quite a bit, hilarious and kills in the classroom.

-Although the use of America and American is very similar to the translation of this noun to adjective in Chinese, it poses huge problems for the Chinese. They are always mixing up these words and have also been taught the word “Americ” with no “a” at the end for some unknown reason.

-Despite being brief with words, the Chinese love to add extra syllables to the end of words. I can’t even blame this on the differing sounds of pinyin and American letters, as my three year olds would even pronounce d-o-g “dog-guh” and c-a-t “cat-uh”…and many more

-What’s your name is also NOT a common greeting in China. Often if I ask a child what his name is, he will look quizzically at his mother and wonder why I’m asking such a strange or private question. Fortunately I have had some parents reply (In Chinese), “It’s OK honey, that’s just what foreigners do!”

Despite the fact that we haven’t been serious about studying Chinese, David and I have picked up quite a bit of the language through listening, repeating, and looking up words when needed. It was so cool to speak with Chinese tourists and Chinese Americans this summer while visiting DC. It seems we kept running into Beijingers, and it’s awesome to think that this could be possible for the rest of our lives.

I also wanted to recount a story from back in Tangshan that I’m not sure I have shared on the blog. I was tutoring a smart, seventeen year old girl for her IELTS exam (the most important English exam for foreign students) and asked the practice question, “Name someone you admire and why.”

“Hitler,” she immediately responded, “because he was a great, powerful leader that many people followed.”

Shocked Erin explains, “While this is a thorough answer, I do not think you should say it for your exam.”

“Why?” asks perplexed girl.

“Well, the people testing you probably don’t have a favorable opinion of Hitler. In fact, most Americans probably think he’s one of the most evil people in the world and you don’t want to offend anyone during this exam.”

“Oh, ok. Let me think then.”

A quite shocking example of the differences in respect for leaders that is accepted and taught in schools. Chinese students are generally brought up to revere Mao, Hitler and Stalin for their charismatic natures and leadership ability, which is quite a unique perspective for Americans.

Also, after reading Evan Osnos’ article in The New Yorker (a GREAT piece on traveling with a Chinese tour group to Europe) and participating in Chinese-led tours with the Jacobs and Anne, it seems that tourism Chinese-style is dramatically different. First of all, tour guides seek to control and regulate their groups in a way that leaves no real room for deviation from the set schedule. Our general perception of customer service and listening to the needs of the traveler are thrown out the window in favor of trying to create an air of importance surrounding the tour guide and delivering on exactly what the tour offers and nothing more. Secondly, tour guides are not able to discuss aspects of near history that shed a less-favorable light on China. While Emperors can be bad-mouthed to a certain extent for being sexual deviants or not treating people fairly, the same rules do not apply for politicians. Additionally, the “Three T’s” are simply not discussed, and it’s my understanding that the employment of tour guides is state-supervised, they can be relieved from their duties for talking about such issues. Thirdly, Chinese tours often highlight the progress of modern China much more than the exceptionally long and innovative history. Although Americans often come to China hoping to see relics of China’s great past, they are often met with skyscrapers and examples of how quickly China is modernizing as a world-player. Young tour leaders know their history, but cannot understand why Western tourists are much more interested in the hutongs and construction workers using man-powered tools than their futuristic cityscapes. The truth of the matter, in my perspective, is that “old China” really doesn’t play a part in the modern life of big cities, which is why it’s so hard for tourists to find an authentic examples of its existence. This is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but its not the kind of experience you and uncover from a tour bus or a young Chinese guide. I can’t tell you how perplexed many people are when I tell them that I came to China for the experience and the culture and not the money. In that case, I would have been gone long ago!

Well, if you got all the way through that, I’m proud. Hopefully you learned a bit and will continue to read on as we continue to answer the question, What is China all about? To appropriately compliment the theme of this post, the photos include the more traditional Chinese culture of markets and a man who sources antique tea pots in Anhui province, and a few fancy events that we have attended around the city.

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Bob Soong, one of our most awesome blog supporters, gave me the inspiration for the title of this blog post. Clearly, David and I have large wings, because the most powerful capital city in the world wasn’t enough to hold us…we had to expand to the most populous one as well! We were lucky enough to visit the US this summer for two weddings, a visit with newborn Holden Jacobs and lots of additional visits and shopping (for me.) I just arrived back in Beijing with over 100lbs of clothes and American food…mostly food. Although my bag was checked three times, once by a cute little beagle, I made it back with all my bounty in tow.

A lot of you have asked about our jobs, so I’ll give a quick overview. I am freelancing in the world of events and PR/marketing and am currently working on charity events and educational tours and programming with The Hutong (www.thehutong.com) culture center and helping to run a November charity dining event called Chi Fan for Charity (www.chifanforcharity.org). I believe that David and I will both be returning to teach English at a British international school in August, and I should be taking on an additional leadership position there. (So yes, we will be here another year, but will be visiting for the holidays as well. Frequent fliers anyone?!)

David is actually in Orlando, FL at the moment, helping to run his company’s summer camps. He is already dealing with a lost passport, but the kids seem to be having a good time. He will be there until mid-August, then back home for a family reunion, and finally a meeting in New York before heading back to meet me. We will probably spend a few weeks together before I lead two different tours, one to Inner Mongolia and another to Yunnan in Southern China! *There are still spots available for this awesome bike, tea, and culinary adventure.

Below are photos from:
*Our last day of teaching just before our trip home
*Tim and Courtney’s pre-wedding festivities in Charlotte, NC
*Coles and Randi’s farmhouse wedding in Roanoke, VA
*Holden at Meadowlark Gardens
*Kenilworth Gardens and its Lotus ponds/fields, where we spoke with some native Beijingers and learned that water lily’s grow IN the water and lotus flowers grow ABOVE the water.
*My visit to the most authentic Chinese Tea House in the area, Ching China Cha in Georgetown and cupcakes from Baked and Wired. (And photos of Gtown on a sweltering but great day downtown!)
*Jane and I before completing Jane’s first 5K!
*My stocked Beijing pantry, thanks mom

Jane, David and I also spend a night with Dad at his new river house on the Yeocomico river in the Northern Neck of Virginia, but I was too busy taking in the rays to snap any photos. We also had a really nice visit with the grandparents while meeting Holden.

PS…did I mention that woke up bright-eyes at 5am this morning ?! I’m blogging because nothing is open yet, good ‘ol jet-lag.

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