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Hello from the depths of my visa nightmare! Yes…I’m being a little dramatic, but it has taken about two weeks of living in worry and despair for me to be able to somewhat joke about our troubles so far in Beijing. I haven’t posted for nearly a month because we have been busy packing up in Tangshan, saying goodbyes, finding an apartment here and dealing with all sorts of visa issues. My position also didn’t work out, but David’s work has been nice enough to help both of us out. However, there have still been multiple set-backs in this process and I’m still not sure if I will be on an over-night train to Hong Kong in two days for a ‘visa run.’ However, please no worries, I still have some good options. I can teach full-time again, but I would much rather work in a field where I have greater interest and experience, like non-profit, travel, events/marketing, etc. So, that’s the long and the short of it right now, and I will update you shortly with any progress. Fortunately, between networking events, job applications and momentary break-downs when it takes me nearly two hours in the rain to drop off some photos at David’s job across town…we have still been able to dive into the sights and sounds of Beijing.

For this post, however, let me take a step back and detail our last few precious moments with Matthew Busa. On Busa’s last day David and he visited the Silk Market and David reported that Busa was an instant haggling pro. He managed to get two North Face jackets for $45 and some pearls for his girlfriend at an equally steller rate (although I can’t remember it.) Apparently Busa is a recent graduate of the David Jacobs School of Iron Roostery (“iron rooster” is the Chinese translation for penny-pincher or cheap skate) and managed to pack his suitcase full of a few more great deals. We said goodbye to Busa after a really nice visit, only to find out a few hours later that he wasn’t really ready to leave Beijing! His flight was postponed until the next day, and the airline put him up in a hotel outside of the city. Unfortunately he had zero RMB left after his shopcation and was put-up far away from downtown, so we didn’t meet back up. Overall though it was great to see a friend from home, and hopefully Busa didn’t get too sick of us.

Back in Tangshan, it was our mission to quickly do all of our favorite things, which mostly included having good food with our friends. *Pictures provided* First up, we went to Shirley’s lao shi’s (aka Lao ShiLey) favorite restaurant for the best gong pao ji ding (kung pao chicken) in China. Next, we took photos with our favorite neighborhood buddies who we often had a chat with before turning in for the night. The guy with the white tank top, blue dress shorts, and black dress shoes (sweet outfit he wore every night) was our building-neighbor who actually printed off these photos and delivered them to our door as a goodbye present. The other man in the blue polo, whom we called Pandagui because his name sounded something like that, hounded us every night to take a trip with him in his car. Unfortunately he had always been drinking a LOT, and we didn’t think that was the best idea. He also brought us to his personal storage space one night and presented us with a few English books. We were greatly appreciative, despite the fact the books were for learning college English.

OK, wrapping this up for our next visa meeting…more to come soon.

And, roughly quoting Don Draper from the last episode of Madmen, “Humans are flawed because we always want more, but then when we get it, we yearn for what we had.”

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So I don’t really remember where I left off, and the internet is too slow in our apartment for me to risk reloading the blog to see where I left off, so I apologize if there is a break in the story. I also apologize for the lack of posting. We just moved to the capital of China, Beijing, and have had to jump through many a hoop in order to move into an apartment, get visas, etc., but now hopefully we can resume our previous posting pace. Our apartment is a 3 bedroom in Shuangjing, a residential area of Beijing that is only a mile or so away from the central business district. We live with 2 Chinese guys, one of whom has been a good friend and helped us with our move in. Things are going well for me, but Erin’s job did not provide her with a visa, so she is going to have to figure something out. We will update you more in the near future. Alrighty, I will continue the tale of Busa’s visit.

We left Xi’an and flew to Tianjin, which would be the 2nd biggest city in America if it were in America, and yet nobody has ever heard of it. From there we took a train to Tangshan, and we had to get tickets for the sleeper cars because there were no tickets for just seats. We each had a bed to ourselves for the long 1.5 hour trip. People were very perplexed when we got off the train at Tangshan, because most people in the sleeper cars were going for 8+ hour trips. I was glad Busa got to see Tangshan, because it gives a better indication of what most places in China are similar to, and it was also a good place that we knew very well (obviously). He got to see Erin and I teach for a bit, checked out the pet and plant market with Erin, the zoo and a few parks with me, the one Chinese night club in Tangshan, a real Chinese KTV (karaoke bar), and of course hit up most of our favorite restaurants. I was glad that we were able to keep busy in the couple days we were there, and the “tourist” activities we did turned out better than expected: the Tangshan zoo had 3 lions, a tiger, a bear, and even a rare golden retriever! Busa and I were very confused when we walked by cages filled with monkeys, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and then….a golden retriever. He got to meet most of our good friends and our favorite people on the food street, so all in all he got a compact yet complete tour of Tangshan. We had to teach on the weekend, so he headed to Beijing before us, and we met up with him on Sunday night.

Beijing is a great city in many ways, but it can also be a pretty cold place (not temperature cold, emotionally cold). This is especially true for a foreigner that can’t speak or read Chinese, so I was a little concerned with sending Busa there on his own. I booked a hotel that said it was right near the place he would be dropped off, but of course it was not where the map said it was, and also had a completely different name than it said it did. To top it off, my phone, which I gave to Busa for emergencies, ran out of battery. Luckily, after much confused wandering, Busa found the hotel, and we were able to find it right away too. We ate a forgettable dinner together because the night market was closed, but the next day Busa and I headed to the Great Wall.

There are multiple spots where you can access the Great Wall from Beijing. The most popular is one called Badaling, and I read about a bus that drops you off right at Badaling for very cheap. Busa and I headed to the bus stop, and after being repeatedly told that foreigners were not allowed to get on the bus (and me very nearly pummeling a guy that told us to “go home”), I decided we should just try to take a taxi. I asked 2 ladies if they wanted to take one with us, and they seemed very disgusted that a foreigner would suggest such a thing, let alone speak to them. I asked two 25ish year old guys if they wanted to go, and they said yes, and also happened to speak English. Woo hoo! Now we had translators and people we could rely on to avoid getting ripped off or kidnapped, so I was pleased. The two guys were brothers, spoke decent English, and were really cool. They were from Dongbei province, which seems to churn out the friendliest people in China, and we really had a good time. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the Great Wall, and the landscape changes drastically in that short amount of time. Suddenly you are not in a city of 15 million people, you are surrounded by mountains and farmland. The wall has been rebuilt in most places, so it is kind of lame that you don’t get to see any of the original wall, but the Chinese hate things that are old and ruined. It is pretty bizarre. We did some serious hiking on the wall, which had some stupidly steep steps, chatted with our new friends, and again lucked out in terms of weather. After 3 hours we were ready to head back, called the taxi, and that was that.

We headed back to the hotel, ate a quick linner (lunch/dinner) at a very cheap Chinese place, and then headed to Hou Hai. Hou Hai is one of the biggest areas to go out in Beijing. It consists of a group of lakes that are surrounded by bars and restaurants, many of which are very Western friendly. It was Chinese Valentine’s Day, so the place was jammed with couples, but it was more lively than I had ever seen. Busa commented that it was the coolest place to go out for drinks/food that he had ever seen. I ate a veggie sandwich, which was perhaps the worst sandwich I have ever had, then stopped at another place which charged me 30 yuan for a coke (they cost 3). It was a great atmosphere though, even including the barrage of people saying to us “Hello friend, beer, cheap beer. You like ladybar?” It is a very beautiful area and was especially alive that night, so it was fun. We were pooped and headed back and called it a night.

This was much longer than I expected. I will finish the Busa excursion hopefully tomorrow (lol yea right), and then try to get everyone up to speed on our current life. I am thinking about my grandma right now, who just got out of the hospital, and I hope that everything goes smoothly with her recovery. Talk to you soon.

It was a trying three nights in Beijing this past week, and we got a good dose of some of the challenges to come in Beijing. Sunday night we took the bus from Tangshan to Beijing to meet back up with Matt, and checked in to a hotel. It was a pretty crap one, with huge dips in the center of the bed and pillows, and the room stank of beef. Anyway, we headed to Wanfujing for dinner, but unfortunately it was a Sunday night and most things were closing down. We attempted to take a taxi to Hou Hai, the western bar and restaurant area, but the taxis weren’t using meters and only charging “foreign” rates, so we ate at one of the only open restaurants.

On Monday I woke up sick and felt like I had the flu. I wasn’t too tempted to stay home from work though…as sleeping in the crud bed was a nightmare, so I headed to the subway. I tried a few times to take a cab to work, but for some reason I don’t understand Beijing cabs seem very lazy and they always told me it was “too far.” When I entered the subway, I knew it wasn’t going to be fun. There was some type of back up, and I was shuffled into a large crowd of people waiting for the trains. One came, didn’t stop…and went by us. The second came…picked up a small amount of people, and left. By the third train I felt like I was about to pass out from heat, but I was literally shoved off of the platform and made it on. It was definitely uncomfortable to have no control of where the crowd moved me, but at least I made it on.

David and Matt also had transportation problems that day. They found the local buses going to the Great Wall, but the driver and passengers wouldn’t let them on. Despite the fact that David was communicating in Chinese, the Beijingers seemed to be saying that these buses weren’t for foreigners. Instead of causing a scene, they left the buses and shared a taxi with two nice guys that were also going to the wall. My best guess on that one is that they want foreigners to pay more to do touristy things. Fortunately, the Wall and visit to the Silk Market proved to be much better experiences, and Matt bought some sweet gear to bring home. A North Face jacket for $35, anyone?

On Tuesday I had to take a cab to a visa office, and was very worried, since it really WAS far away. The first guy we asked didn’t know where I was going, but I really got lucky with the second driver. He talked on my cell phone to the office to find out the directions, we chatted on the way there, and he even agreed to stay and wait to take me back into the city after the meeting. He was really good at understanding my Chinese, and even pulled out a little chair to wait for my appointment to end without charging extra! Unfortunately this excursion and work caused me to miss Matt’s last day, but I did get to meet two US Embassy employees who worked in cultural outreach. Apparently Hillary Clinton has set up a new office dedicated to women’s issues at the Embassy, so there should be some growth in women’s initiatives in Beijing. Also, one of the women is married to a guy who grew up in Vienna, VA, ahhh! On Tuesday night David and I also had a fun conversation with some locals in a Hutong outside of our hotel.

By Wednesday I was feeling better, but David was sick. I headed off to work, made some progress in planning the women’s program and headed off to another meeting at restaurant (Alla Osteria) that would potentially be a host for some events. It was an incredible stroke of luck that I found the place (I almost started crying when I realized I had no idea how to find my way around, I wrote down the wrong metro but the cab driver miraculously took me to the general vicinity), and the owners were such characters. The husband is an extremely laid-back and generous Italian who speaks very little Chinese, while the wife is a Beijinger with sharp business skills and no-nonsense attitude. Well, the place was great and so were the owners, so I was so glad I managed to make the meeting. It even turned out that the wife’s family is from Tangshan! Of course…after the meeting my phone died and I had to go to starbucks for free internet to try and find where David was in the city. We tried exchanging emails but didn’t connect and ended up taking separate buses home. When I got back, I was greeted by the nice surprise of our neighbor who had printed out the two photos we took with him.

What a roller coaster, and I’m sure there’s more to come. My only thoughts are that I need an iPhone. Odd conclusion, you ask? Not really. An iPhone would allow me to translate and show directions to cab drivers more easily, help when I’m lost and allow me to contact David! But alas, I will have to continue to be resourceful.

I hope not! Because we have a few more for you. This past Monday we visited the Summer Palace, where the emperors would spend the summer in luxury. The entrance had an impressive canal lined with small shops and ancient buildings, which looked like a perfect movie set. The actual palace was huge and ornate, but overall very similar to many we have visited so far. There was a big lake around which all of the palace buildings were strewn, and my favorite part was the lily pad pond. The Summer Palace is known for the “Marble Boat” which is made to look like an incredible feat of buoyancy, but really it’s made of wood. Unfortunately we didn’t see the boat…strike one.

After the palace it was our mission to find Kro’s Nest pizza, which we had tried to find on a previous trip but couldn’t locate. We took the subway to Mudanyuan and started the quest. We walked around the area for nearly an hour, unable to locate the restaurant. Then, we got in a cab and tried to say “pizza” because we knew we were close…fail. I was getting really hungry at this point so we stopped in “The Library Cafe” which was very nice and Western, and I got a mango smoothie. Re-energized, we set out again. We asked even more people on the street about the confusing address…were about to give up, when finally we asked a guard who understood us and pointed straight ahead. No sign and all, we had finally found the Kro’s Nest! The pizza wasn’t NY quality, but it was the best we have had in China, and the salad and fries were also really good. They were also giving out free beer that night, and although I don’t usually drink, I had a few celebratory sips, ha. Oh yea, and we got veggie and mexican pizza! After dinner we took the metro to the Olympic Village, in hopes to see the buildings at night…strike two. We missed the lights by 20 minutes at 10:20pm.

We slept in a cheap hotel room without windows (hate that but it was a good deal). In the morning we stopped by a bakery and went to Tienanmen Square to see Mao’s embalmed body. Stike three! Viewing hours ended at noon, we were TWO minutes late. Still took some pretty photos and headed to a culture street behind the square. I passed by a store called Me & City and saw a dress that I really liked, and David actually agreed to go in! I debated heavily over the dress, but it was a little pricey, so I just bought a tank-top…and we headed to Lao Shi tea house. This tea house has hosted many politicians and world leaders and it was incredibly beautiful and ornate. This has to be one of my favorite buildings in China…but drinking tea here requires renting a private room and paying over 100 RMB per pot, so we didn’t sip. Maybe we can in the future with some visitors, though! After the tea house we had lunch at an authentic nearby restaurant and, much to David’s excitement, headed back to the store to buy the dress that I couldn’t stop thinking about. The employee informed me that if I bought the dress I would get a free t-shirt…so it was a done deal. (I know you were worried.)

To end the trip we walked on the Wanfujing shopping street for a while, bought two English books at the international bookstore and did some food shopping at Jenny’s Lou’s. We missed the 7:30 bus by a few minutes (strike 4), waited, and headed back. Overall it was a frustrating trip because of timing, but that was our fault for not checking hours better…and we still saw another good chunk of the city.

Hey all, we are ready for another weekend of teaching starting tomorrow, so I wanted to make a quick post about some random things. Not a whole lot is new since we came back from Beijing, but I went out for the first time to some real Chinese night clubs last night. We started the night getting dinner at a restaurant with our boss, Eddie, and the other teacher, David, and had a nice meal. Eddie was pretty drunk by the time we left the restaurant, so Erin made the wise choice of staying home instead of going to the club called the Toy Bar. David (the other teacher) wanted me to go and I felt bad leaving him with a drunk Eddie (again), so I tagged along. It was a pretty hilarious experience, especially considering all the horror stories the Chinese teachers at our school told us about massive fights, drug use and other things at this bar. Don’t worry, this would have been the tamest club in the USA, so it is incredibly edgy for Chinese standards. There were 3 dancers that came out every 15 minutes to do a little dance show, involving some bad hip hop dance moves that was quite amusing to watch. Random guys kept coming up to me and trying to buy me drinks or talk to me, and were touching me a LOT which was a little awkward, but is totally common in China. It was deafeningly loud and the room was filled with smoke, but it was still funny to see the Chinese people dancing horribly and singing every lyric to some of the worst English pop music I have ever heard. Why they are playing English pop music in a Chinese dance club is beyond me, but every person knew every word, so I guess they really like it. We left pretty early, before Eddie could do any serious damage to the place.

Overall we have adjusted to life here pretty easily and are having a good time. There are some things that are really starting to irritate me though. Nobody here looks before they cross the street. Cars just go before they look to see if things are coming. People will walk right at you until the very last second, then stop in front of you, THEN move out of the way. I truly do not understand why they do this, and it is a miracle that people aren’t killed constantly while crossing the street. I have asked Chinese people if they look both ways before crossing the street and they all say “No, we don’t do that.” Don’t do that?! Why? WHY? WHY?! It makes driving, riding a bike, and even walking that much more difficult, dangerous, and time consuming, because you have to always move out of the way of people that are paying no attention to anything. In America this is some people, some of the time. In China this is all people, almost all of the time. I have seen lots of traffic accidents the past few weeks, almost all involve a taxi and someone trying to turn. People just turn, they don’t look. They just go and hope traffic stops. Most of the time it does, but again, why not just follow the obvious (to an American) rules of the road, which will save you time and cause less accidents. For now, I just keep both eyes on the road at all times, because you never know what people will do.

Only one more complaint, I know everyone is probably really enjoying my whining. I do not think a single person in China turns their cell phone on vibrate. You can be sitting next to someone on a bus that will get 50 text messages in 10 minutes, with their phone making lots of noise each time, and the only person that it appears to annoy is me. It is not just in those situations, though, because the Chinese teachers and the parents of students that are in class will let their phone ring away in the middle of class, and it is like nobody even notices. Obviously this is not a big deal most of the time, but it is pretty annoying when you are trying to teach and have to start screaming to talk over the noise. It is to the point that I think it is perhaps a sign of status to have your phone make a ton of noise, the more often the better. My mind often tempts me to grab the parents cell phones in class, smash them against the wall, but I try to remember good ol’ Kung fu Tze (Confucius) saying, “Let there be no evil in your thoughts.” Serenity now, as Cosmo Kramer would say.

Alrighty, we are going to watch an episode of our new TV series that we got, Madmen. We finished The Wire a few days ago, and if you have never seen it, you should watch it (it is for mature audiences only)! I have attached some more pictures for your viewing pleasure from our trip to Beijing. Time to teach all weekend for us! Get on skype so we can chat. Zaijian.

Ran Qiu said, “It is not that your Way does no commend itself to me, but that it demands powers I do not possess.” The Master said, “He whose strength gives out collapses during the course of the journey (or the Way); but you deliberately draw the line.” The Analects, 6.10

We decided to spend two of our days off this week in Beijing again. We were trying to decide between Tianjin and Beijing, but the other David had not visited Beijing yet, so we all went together. Our first stop after the 2-hour bus ride was the Temple of Heaven; a large park/temple sanctuary constructed in 1421 for the emperors to worship, ask for good harvests, make sacrifices and enjoy its beauty. We went on the Qingming holiday (Tomb Sweeping Day to honor the dead), so it was bustling with people. Lots of elderly people were selling small hand-made wares, dancing around, laughing and singing, practicing tai chi, and generally being a lively addition to the park. The major temple, used for making prayers of good harvest, was really impressive. It is ornately decorated on the inside and out and very architecturally complex. Beside it, we visited the “70-year Door” created in 1779 by during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. The Emperor’s health was failing and building door was offered as a way for the Emperor to bypass the long walls and enter the ceremony grounds more quickly. He accepted the offer, but only on the terms that no other Emperor could enter the door unless they had also reached the age of 70. Since no Emperor ever lived to that age again, he has been the only one to use the door.

We experienced a funny situation as we walked through the park, and stumbled upon a Chinese couple who had paid to rent some Qing Dynasty-esque costumes to take pictures. We started to take photos of them, but they immediately invited David and I into the photos. The Chinese man took of his Emperor hat and necklace and put it on David, taking his Avon Walk Crew hat for his own head. Everyone was definitely amused (except the attendants standing around waiting for us to stop taking advantage of the costumes) and the photos came out great. They have these dress-up sessions at almost all Chinese attractions, although I haven’t actually seen any foreigners participating, only the Chinese. I also posted a photo of an older Chinese couple with some really sweet Nike and Adidas shoes. It seems like everyone young and old likes these brands, and I get a kick out of the combination of traditional Chinese clothing and Nikes!

At night we went to the Hou Hai area of Beijing, which is known for its lake-side scenery and night-life. At night it looked great because all of the buildings were lit up and reflecting over the lakes. Not many people were walking around because it was raining on a Monday night, so we were more harassed than normal to patron the many empty bars and restaurants in the area. David was a little sad that the whole area seem really Westernized, as most of the bars featured Budweiser, Gin & Tonics, White Russians and other typically Western bar drinks. The area sort of felt like the Cancun or Miami of Beijing, but it was still really fun to see this touristy place. The drinks and food are all extremely over-priced, but we did find some great deals on DVDs around the area.

It took a little time, but we found a youth hostel nearby, and had dinner at a Thai restaurant. Again, expensive but I thought the food was excellent and the decor was nice. David and I split lemon fried tofu and potato/egg pancakes, and the tofu is definitely some of the best I have ever had. I am a big fan of lemon sauces, but it was awesome! After dinner we found another chic little coffee shop and had tea and cake…definitely felt frou frou for China but it was a good night.

The hostel was good, located next to the Bell Tower in Beijing, and in the morning we each ate an egg omlette from a street vendor for $1.50 total. The second day was bright and sunny after the rain, and probably in the low 60s. It was a prettiest day we have had in China so far, so we walked around a lot! First we went to Beihai Park, which is huge and is definitely the best tourist deal for the money. We saw carp pools, Buddhist temples, a big lake a little reminiscent of the Tidal Basin in DC, Chinese temples on the water, one of the 3-famous 9-dragon walls, and a lot of pretty scenery. You could also rent a small boat to take to a center island in the park, but we didn’t do that this time.

After Beihai, we went to another park across the street from the Forbidden City, called Jingshan (literally Prospect Hill). We climbed to the top of a small mountain in the park and got some really good views of the entire city. We took aerial photos of the Forbidden City, and could see all of the spots we had visited in Beijing. Unlike most cities in the US, it is obvious that Beijing is very old, because the center of the city is filled with small neighborhoods and windy roads, while the malls and skyscrapers don’t begin until you get a few miles out. We are so used to skyscrapers being right in the middle of town, but that isn’t the case in most historical spots. One of the interesting things about this park is that the last Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, actually hanged himself from a tree here, because he sensed the end of his rule by invasion of the newly proclaimed Shun Dynasty.

After Jingshan and a bidding war between drivers, we got into a small 3-wheel car to head back to Hou Hai for a restaurant that David heard was good. The drivers were really trying to rip off visitors to the Forbidden City, and charging 50 RMB for 5-7 RMB rides. We found a driver that offered us 5 RMB, so we got in. He took us through an Old Beijing neighborhood called Hutong and showed us three houses that were supposed to be hundreds of years old. Then, we stopped at our destination and he first locked the door of the car. He then told us the price was 180 RMB per person. David sprang into action and began yelling,” No 5 kuai, you told us 5″ (in Chinese). He showed us a laminated sheet of paper that said 180 RMB for “Old Beijing” tour. What a joke, he literally showed us 3 houses along the route and was trying to make us pay for a ridiculous “tour.” For this amount of money, we could have literally taken a bus to the Great Wall which is an hour outside of the city. He said, ok fine, 500…just as David managed to unlock the door. We tried to give him the 5 kuai (like saying “bucks” for RMB) he earned, but he refused and pulled out a tire lock and started waving it at us. We began to walk away and he began acting like he was going to run the small car into each of us, as many tourists and Chinese people started laughing at him. I called him a “Huai Ren” (bad person, I think) and we just kept saying that he could come and talk about it in the Tourist Center across the street if he really wanted. He eventually gave up and drove away with no money, but it certainly made me scared and so sad that he rips off tourists like this. So the moral of the story is: 1. David is no fool. And 2. Only take taxis in Beijing because they have meters. The tri-wheel bikes are a cute gimmick but the drivers are real jerks.

To add a little to this point, one of the major benefits of living in Tangshan versus a tourist city is that no one tries to rip you off. They are so surprised and interested in just seeing a foreigner, that I’m not sure thee idea of ripping them off is even in their thought-process. Tangshan doesn’t have anything in English like Beijing, or hardly anyone who can say more than hello, but I really like that there seems to be more embracing and appreciating visitors than trying to take advantage of them. Yes, my bike was still stolen, which is a big problem here…but I don’t think I was targeted as a foreigner, I was just targeted because I had a nice bike! One thing I did learn in the Beijing Silk Market though, is that even the Chinese people there respect the fact that David and I have come to teach, and immediately give us the “teacher price.” Yes, it’s still initially a rip-off, but it’s still somethin!

At this point we were really hungry and walked to a nearby pizza place in Hou Hai. It was ridiculously expensive, but David got a really good veggie burger and we all had pizza. It was ALL foreigners in the joint, and lots of kids getting their pizza fix! After pizza, we took a cab to try and find Jenny Lou’s import store. Somehow the cab actually made it there, and we bought some ketchup, cereal, ingredients for chili, granola bars, and rolos and caramellos for our boss. The prices were the same as at home, but clearly expensive for China. We walked through one last park with a lot of activities for the warm weather (rock climbing for about 4 dollars a day), and headed back to the bus station. Overall it was another successful trip to Beijing, and there is still a LOT there that we haven’t done!

David has kindly reminded me that I haven’t been updating the blog as much as I should…but never fear, I have been keeping notes and remember everything I want to share!  Backing up a little, the dust storm really was crazy.  This whole month (yes…we have made it a month already, can you believe it?!) I have felt like I live on a movie set, where someone just controls all the people and atmosphere because it seems too foreign to be real.  If you have ever seen the movie The Truman Show…I feel like that.  The dust storm was the best representation of this feeling so far, riding on my bike through sand and dust to school, I just felt like some special effects guy had just switched on the “Asian Dust Storm” switch.  Oddly enough, when we exited a train station in Beijing, we stumbled across some Mongolian tourists who wanted to take our picture.  I think in the trade-off between dust storms and photos, they won.

I have to recount a funny story that happened in school the day of the dust storm.  I teach a class called NC-1.  It’s an intermediary class for kids that did not pass the previous level and need extra attention.  As you can imagine, this class is tough.  I was reviewing the months of the year, and asked Logan, what month do you like?  He smiled and said, “I like watermelons!”  Oh good, Logan understands the “I like” concept.  So I explained, can you look at the list of the months in the book in front of you: Jan, Feb, etc.  “Logan, I like February because it’s my birthday, or I like August…”  Logan says, “Ohhhh, dui dui (yes, yes), I like watermelons!”  OK, that was a huge fail for me…but the Chinese teacher and I had a good laugh about it after class.  Next class, we will review “I like” and Logan will pass with flying colors.

Lets see, in part of getting our resident permits we had a short interview with a Tangshan government official.  One thing that was very interesting about the government offices is that they all had beds in them!  I’m not sure why, and I reallly like this custom, but it was very unique.  Also, we asked the official about how many foreigners were in Tangshan, since we have seen 4.  He said 700, but half of those work for a German branch of Siemans, 200 are medical students, and the rest are teachers or students.  He said lots of Taiwanese and Pakistani come to study medicine.

One thing I also wanted to mention about the first night in Beijing was the Lao Beijing (Old Beijing) area.  It is near the food street, but is a small area of the city set up with little windy roads and tons of vendors to look more like an old-fashioned Beijing market.  As you may know, I completely love markets and got a total kick out of this place.  There are people and knick-knacks on every corner, and  it’s just a fun vibe.  Also, a funny thing about all the markets (Night Market, Silk, Lao Beijing) is that the Chinese vendors know limited but tourist friendly Chinese.  They are always shouting,  “hello lady, do you like, do you want?  or funny phrases like “Mmmm silk worms!”

OK, now to tell you about the second day in Beijing.  First we walked around the city and found the train station, which is next to the bus station, to buy our tickets home.  It was a VERY confusing experience because although there is a direct line from Beijing to Tangshan, it’s in an unmarked, abandoned-looking tile room about 2 blocks from the actual bus station.  Luckily Eddie had drawn us a map and warned us about this craziness, but it was still shocking.  We found out that we didn’t need to pre-purchase tickets, and would just need to show up 10 minutes before we wanted to leave at night, so we headed on towards the Silk Market.  The Silk Market is the best-known shopping center in Beijing…and it’s incredible.  Oh to see the look on some of you fashionistas faces at this 6-story mega shop!  There are rows upon rows of vendors selling everything from name-brand clothes to Chinese souvenirs.  They have leather jackets, sevens and true religion jeans, paintings, signature seals, pearls, luggage, watches, massages, DVDs…basically shopping heaven!  However, as David mentioned, this place is packed with tourists that come in by the busload, so the first price the vendors offer is outrageous, not even a deal in the states.  In the end, however, if you are persistent, there are huge deals to be had.  Although I wanted to buy a million things, we managed to escape with two paintings (originally offered at over $100 US, bartered by David to about $22) and a tea-strainer mug.  I can’t wait to check out this place with some of you…and buy cashmere together!

After the silk market we headed to the Olympic Village to see the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube.  They were huge, cool and just like you have seen them on TV.  There were a surprising amount of people milling about, but we decided we should go again at night because it would probably look more exciting.  Don’t get me wrong…it’s all really impressive architecture, but not much to do in that area.  We also tried to find this pizza place called the Kro’s Nest that had been recommended to us by some of the teachers, but ended up being taken to Domino’s.  I was starving at that point and didn’t feel like looking anywhere else for food, so much to David’s displeasure we had a $20 pizza.  I thought it was pretty good though!

From there we took a cab to the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, Yonghegong.  On the way to the temple was an entire street filled with incense vendors, and the temple itself was very ornate.  I think pictures will describe it better than I can, but it was a great example of a traditional buddhist temple, complete with many rooms housing gold Buddhas.  Many Chinese were also kneeling and praying to the Buddhas with incense, and there were many buses full of tourists there as well.  I was getting extremely tired at this point…David is a walking machine and all I could think about was cuddling up with our new DVDs, so we began another long walk to the bus station.  We stopped on the way at a great vegetarian restaurant and caught the bus home from the divey little room-station.

Overall we were really impressed with Beijing, minus the air quality, and are looking forward to going back!  Today I heard about the Health Care legislation and Google pulling out of mainland China, which are both big updates for me.  I will have to see how this Health Care bill plays out, as I am currently paying for US insurance in fear of having a “gap” in coverage during my time in China, waaah wah and clearly Google pulling out of China completely would not be good.  In other news, I got a haircut today from the best guy in the shop for under $2 and we had our first official Chinese class.  I think we are eager students…but are still completely tone deaf!!!  Also, just as a reminder, the Avon Walk is in one month and if you are looking to fulfill your charitable budget for the year, I know some pretty awesome walkers that still need funds.

Goodbye for now from the land of tea.

Ni hao everybody!  Erin and I just returned from our first trip, to the great city of Beijing.  Of all our traveling exploits, I think this ranks as the one I am most proud of us accomplishing (slightly in front of renting a car in South Africa and having no issues whatsoever) because so much could have gone very wrong on this trip.  The day started in Tangshan, getting in a cab for the bus station.  We jumped our first hurdle, which was getting the cab driver to understand that we wanted a bus to Beijing.  After a few minutes, he understood, dropped us at the station, and we purchased our tickets.  We hopped on the bus, listened to some guy try to sell everyone these cheap looking rings (and selling at least one to every person on the bus except us!!!), and then headed towards the Chinese capital.

We were dropped in the middle of nowhere, and wandered around confused, repeating the words “Tian’an Men” to various people, trying to get towards Tiananmen Square.  After about 40 minutes, we got a cab and were taken to the city center.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was pretty nasty on Monday.  Not nasty meaning rainy or cold, nasty meaning they sky was brown with dust blowing around constantly.  We have both had enough of the pollution/dust, but what can you do?  Luckily it cleared up substantially that night, so it wasn’t too bad.  Anyways, if you are standing in the middle of Tian’an Men Square, take a couple steps forward because you might be standing on Chairman Mao’s embalmed corpse!  In the middle of the square is…Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, which is basically his body and some sculptures.  The body is on display in the morning and afternoon, but we didn’t see it this time.  There is an obelisk in the middle as well, the Monument to the People’s Heroes.  If you are facing the Forbidden Palace, then the Great Hall of the People (aka Parliament building) will be on your left, and the National Museum of China will be on your right.  The most impressive aspect of the square, as I mentioned before, was the size of it.  Some pictures of the square and the buildings are attached, so take a look!

We wandered about the square for a little while, but we wanted to find a hotel ASAP, because we did not have our passports with us, which presented another potential obstacle.  We had letters from the government of Tangshan saying our passports were being reviewed so we can become resident aliens and luckily Erin remembered as we were walking out the door that we had copies of our passports.  We walked up Wangfujing Street, the main shopping street in all of Beijing.  There are huge malls on both sides of the street and the place is packed with pedestrians.  After getting our hotel room squared away, we got some food near St. Joseph’s Church, one of the oldest and most impressive churches in Beijing.  After eating, we walked towards the Wangfujing “Night Market”, one of the most famous food streets in China.  A food street is a street that has tons of street food, and every city in China seems to have at least one, if not many, food streets.  The Night Market is special in that it has gathered many of the street foods found in cities all around China.  It is a walking tour of street food around China, a tad overpriced, but we learned quickly that just about everything in Beijing, even if the price is listed, is negotiable.  I took lots of pictures of the foods found in the street; beef, lamb, potatoes, eggs, noodles, silk works, snake, sheep testacles, sheep penis, seahorses, starfish…you get the idea.  If anyone comes to visit us, seeing the Night Market is an absolute must in my opinion.  There just aren’t places like that, especially with foods like that in the USA.

We walked down Wangfujing street again, looking at more of the shopping areas this time.  We bought some books for learning Chinese, a map of Beijing, and I bought “The Analects”, the most famous book of Confucian teachings at the Foreign Language Bookstore.  The street looked very different and a lot more lively at night, and there were cheap souvenirs were all over the place (although the first price you hear is usually not so cheap).  As I mentioned before, prices are very negotiable in Beijing, and as our manager explained to us, you should expect to pay about 30% of the first price they give you.  Based on our experiences haggling, I would say expect to pay 10-30% of the first price they give you!  There are a lot of tourists in Beijing and many of them do not even attempt to haggle, so these places have to make an incredible amount of profit per sale.  The constant haggling is another fun aspect of Beijing (and most of China), but it gets tiresome, because you have to deal with salespeople telling you outrageous prices and then whittling the price down to 10% of the original.  Some pictures of the souvenir shops are also included, with some of the even odder delicacies we saw that night, namely LIVE SCORPIONS!  Why people were eating these still moving scorpions I do not know, but I guess there is a certain fascination with eating anything that weird.  Part of me dies inside seeing the way the Chinese treat animals and the environment, but there isn’t a whole lot I can say to change anyone’s minds.  If an entire country is willing to put up with dust storms and pollution that makes them get cancer, blocks the sun for months, and don’t mind not seeing a blue sky all year, how can you change their minds about other environmentally damaging things?  I don’t have the answer yet.  We walked in a few more shops, did a loop back up the Night Market, bought some street food for dinner, and then went to sleep.  Erin didn’t feel great (potentially because of the dust), so we wanted to get lots of sleep for the massive amounts of walking we would do on Tuesday.

Beijing is a great city that is incredibly hospitable to the large amount of foreign tourists that visit, but at the same time, many people in the city understand that it is almost too easy to fool a tourist that speaks no Chinese and has no idea what prices are like in China.  We encountered a common scam Monday night, which involves 20ish year old girls approaching you, telling you they are college students learning English, and are wondering if they can practice with you.  Then they ask to get coffee somewhere, where you are then potentially charged thousands of US dollars for coffee.  If you refuse to pay, gangsters that are part of the plot will make you aware that refusing to pay is simply not an option.  Don’t worry, we chatted with the girls for a little while just to see if they were scammers, and sure enough, they asked us to go for coffee, and we declined.  It makes you appreciate humble cities like Tangshan in a way, because we have not been given an unfair price at all since we have been here.  There is no haggling in Tangshan, even as an obviously foreign customer, because most of the shopkeepers are so stupefied that a foreigner is in their store in the first place.  All this considered, if you ever have had an interest in Beijing or in visiting us, you should do it.  Seeing Beijing would be worth the trip in itself.

This is just day 1 of our 2 day journey to Beijing, but I am too tired to finish it.  Maybe my lovely girlfriend can author part 2, but she is already asleep.  So for now you will have to enjoy part 1, and come back tomorrow (or later tonite I suppose) to see part 2.  I am going to leave a quote from the Analects at the bottom of my posts from now on, so put your philosophical thinking caps on.  Zajian everybody! (zaijian = goodbye)

2.2  (Book 2, passage 2)  The Master said, “If out of the three hundred Songs I had to take one phrase to cover all my teaching, I would say ‘Let there be no evil in your thoughts.'”

Despite the fact that the snow is STILL following us from the US…we are having a good time in Tangshan!  We taught all weekend, which was especially rough for David because he was sick.  Teaching 15+ hours with a sore throat is not fun, but we made it and are beginning to get to know the kids a little better.  We also had our first classes at a public school at the end of last week, and I really loved the experience.  With all that I had heard about the intensity and rigor of schooling here, I expected public school to be a very solemn atmosphere.  Much to my delight, kids seemed happy and excited to be in school.  I assume that English classes with a foreign teacher are particularly exciting, but the kids were giggling and clapping when I walked into the room and they were even better at English than most of my students at Aston.  The most touching moment of the day came when I introduced myself and then asked the kids to tell me what they like to do.  One girl said, “I like to sing,” and I replied, “can you sing?”  She immediately looked at the teacher, who hesitantly nodded her head, and the girl skipped to the front of the room and began to sing!  Her voice was so sweet and really good, and the kids mostly clapped along with her.  I really hope to have more experiences like that, where I can encourage kids to show me a little more of themselves.  The teachers in the public schools were also good at English and very professional, I hope that we can befriend a few.

After class on Sunday I had a long talk with one of the teachers at Aston about education in China.  She explained that in Chinese schooling only three subjects really matter: Chinese, Math and English.  Parents generally get upset when classes like music and PE are introduced into their children’s schedules.  This teacher mentioned that her sister had always loved music, but was not allowed to pursue her interest.  However, she didn’t do very well on the final high school exam (the really important one that determines which type of university you will attend) and had no other choice than to attend a music school.  Apparently music and arts schools are the most expensive and least desirable, and are mostly for kids that don’t have any other options for schooling.  Fortunately, this girl’s parents were liberal enough to let her attend, and she’s now a Chinese folk singer!

On Monday we were off and although David didn’t feel great, we went around the city a little.  We met a new 24-year old student that we will be tutoring once a week.  His parents own a tree-fencing company and want to expand to English-speaking tradeshows, and he’s hoping to learn business and conversational English in one month.  I think this may be quite a challenge because while he knows the phrase “Next time it’s on me,” he doesn’t know colors!  I also got a basket put on my bike, we ate “pizza” at the “Italian” joint in town, and bought a lot of groceries at RT Mart.  Oddly enough…there was a stage and live singing in front of the mega-store too!  Afterwards, I attempted to cook our first real dinner at home, which consisted of a stir-fry of beans, onions, peanuts in vinegar, ginger, mushrooms and eggs over rice…which turned out pretty well.  One of the teachers at our school has offered to teach us how to cook some more traditional Chinese food, so we hope to learn more.  We have also watched the movies Kung Foo Hustle and Memoirs of a Geisha, which have been really good.  Our manager has over 3,000 DVDs at his house, so we hope to catch up on a lot of Chinese and American films.

Today (Tuesday) we met the other David and teacher, Ada and went downtown to the Palagic Mall and street market.  Ada was nice enough to help us buy cell phones.  We got two phones for $20 each, which included a few hundred minutes per month, and a plan that allows us to call each other for free…sweet deal!  The phones won’t be active for 48 hours, but after that we can receive calls for free and call the US in case of an emergency for about $2.50/min.  The mall was really nice, complete with a movie theater and good restaurants.  Ada also wants to find a gym with yoga classes, so I’m very excited about that.  After the mall we headed to the plant and pet market.  We bought 5 plants for the house for about $20, and pet lots of cute puppies.  David was asking how much all the plants were and as a joke, he pointed to a man’s dog and asked how much he cost.  At first the man laughed, but then told Ada that he would sell us the dog for 300 RMB, haha.  Tempting to have a little pup in our apartment, but we had to pass.

Next up we need to open bank accounts and further decorate the apartment.  We also plan to take our first trip to Beijing this weekend.  And now to post lots of pictures of the things I have just described…

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