"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page." - St. Augustine

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The General State of Things

I’m realizing, looking back on my blogs, that a lot of what makes it up here is very disjointed. It fluctuates between generic, touristy information and random experiences that seem noteworthy at the time. (This is probably also because I update so rarely – still working on this!) But there’s not too much about my everyday life here and how things are really going. Hence, an update on “The General State of Things.”
It’s November now, and I’ve been here for over two months now. That’s kind of hard to believe – time is really flying by! That being said, I’m definitely finding that things here have reached a certain level of normalcy. For the first few weeks that I was here, everything seemed so new and different, often outrageously so, and life was a constant stream of culture shock and daily absurdities. But now, I’m feeling more comfortable with the way things work. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some weird things that I won’t probably ever get completely used to, and it definitely still feels different than life in the more familiar western world. It’s more that I’ve come to expect it, so it doesn’t faze me so much. I can cross the street fairly nonchalantly without really fearing for my life anymore. I’m learning to ignore the staring, most of the time. Alright, only some of the time, but still. Baby steps.  It doesn’t bother me so much that I can’t read anything in the supermarket. I just go with the flow and if something’s not what I thought it was, then oh well! (All though it helps that I can understand when they tell me my total, and I can say, “I want that one” and things like that) Eating out involves much “Chinglish” and gesturing, but I can get by.
Classes are also going pretty well. I’ve gotten a better grasp on the levels of my various classes, so I can plan my lessons more effectively. This whole teaching thing has also done wonders for my public speaking abilities. Shy little me can speak in front of crowds now, no problem! There is one negative on the teaching front though. A few weeks ago, I started teaching a 10-week course, twice a week, for other teachers at the college. It had its ups and downs: about a month in, I still don’t have the teacher’s edition of the text book, so the school wasted a bunch of money on that; there’s a lot wider range of English abilities among the teachers than my regular students, largely because there’s also a wider age range; the class gave me the opportunity to meet some non-students, which is always good, and I’m hoping some of the friendships I’ve made will last throughout the year; extra pay is always good. But, I found out this week that the class has been cancelled. The last two classes I have only had two people show up, so the administration decided to call it off. I think they’ll try to restart it in the spring when, I am told, the teachers’ loads are not so heavy.
The students. I love love love my students. They are all so nice and excited to see me out and about. Two of them have taken it upon themselves to be my personal tour guides into Jiujiang’s nightlife, which is a surprisingly fun scene. Last week, I had my first KTV (Karaoke) experience with another, larger group of students. I have frequent requests for them to “be my friend” and I am always happy to oblige! It’s really pretty great being the same age as my students. Hopefully this trend will continue!
Other than that, there is not much more to say. The weather here is just starting to turn cooler, although not really cold enough for my taste. I am regularly asked why I am not cold and told that I should wear more clothes by students decked out in several layers and winter jackets. They can’t quite seem to grasp that I can not be cold when its 55 or 60 degrees outside! I alsorecently completed a week of Halloween lesson plans, complete with pictures and candy, which was a fun cultural diversion from my poorly written textbooks.
I’m sure some element of homesickness will set in as November gives way to the holiday season. But, for now, I’m just enjoying things here. Hopefully, more updates will come before long! Bye for now!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Week in Xi'an

Alright, it’s time for the vacation rundown (it’s taken me so long to write this because it’s so freaking long…sorry! Go get a snack or something, cause this is gonna take a while).
 From October 1st – 7th, I was on vacation for the National Day holiday, aka one of the ‘Golden Weeks’. This holiday celebrates the founding of the P.R. China on October 1st, 1949. Most of the schools get a week off.  Some workers get 3 days. Your average Chinese don’t really get much of a vacation though. For farmers, the work is still there, and shopkeepers tend to stay open, often for longer hours to accommodate increased business, during the holiday. Most of my students went home and worked for their parents’ farms or shops, or at least helped around the house while their parents worked; or they took on part-time jobs for the week.  If you are lucky enough to get the time off work though, this week is a popular time to go home and visit extended family or take a rare sightseeing trip. It is also a popular time for weddings. When I asked my students what they did on their holidays, I was surprised to hear how many of them went to their brother’s/sister’s/cousin’s wedding. I guess it is a time when more people will be likely to travel to the event, so it makes a lot of sense. For many people though, this is one of the few vacations you get a year (only about half of Chinese workers get paid vacations), so tourism also spikes in all the major cities.
With all the travelling that goes on at this time, I was warned that public transportation would be horrendously busy. I didn’t realize quite how bad this would be. We (Laura, my fellow Jiujiang CIEE teacher, and I) only finalized our travel plans about a week or so before the holiday, so the seats were all sold out by the time we bought train tickets. So, on Friday night (September 30th) we headed to the train station, ready for a 16 hour train ride, squatting on the floor. This is what that looked like:

UNfun. Fortunately, we only had to squat on the floor between the trash can and the smokers until about 4 or 5 am when a few people started getting off and we were offered seats. By the late morning, we had two seats each and were able to actually get some sleep, although it was still rather uncomfortable. But, we eventually made it to Xi’an, which is really all that mattered in the end.
Rather than give you a day-by-day rundown of our week, I’ll just hit the highlights (which will probably still take a while).
THE FOOD: We discovered that food in Xi’an is much less spicy than in Jiujiang, which was at first a little boring to be honest. But, we still managed to find some delicious masterpieces.
first meal in Xi'an
extremely delicious fat noodles

There is a large Muslim population in Xi’an, so there were lots of delicious noodle dishes. We actually ate a lot of our meals in the Muslim Quarter which was about 5 minutes from our hostel and is full of relatively cheap and quite delicious dishes.
around the Muslim Quarter

We of course tried some local specialties. This one is called yangrou paomo. You rip up some flat bread into the bottom of your bowl, and then they cover it with a delicious mutton soup. Mmm yummy!

We also tried roujiamo, pita bread meat sandwiches, and some others that I don’t know the name of, including little noodles steamed in balls and covered with a spicy sauce, and fried sweet potato cakes!
more delicious food in the Muslim Quarter

sweet potato cakes

Although, there were some questionable restaurants that we avoided…
this reminds of the elephant graveyard in The Lion King

our hostel is the left part of the building

THE HOSTEL: Our hostel turned out to actually be pretty great. I was worried that since we were booking it so late, we would be stuck with a questionable hostel.  And, its reviews online weren’t so great. But, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone traveling to Xi’an! We stayed at the Bell Tower International Youth Hostel. The location was absolutely perfect. It is located right in the middle of the old town right next to the Bell Tower. Like I said, we were 5 minutes from the Muslim Quarter, where all the food was, so that was great. And, since the Bell Tower marks the center of the city, you can catch a bus to pretty much anywhere from one corner or another. 
hostel bar/restaurant

 As for the hostel itself, it was pretty much what you’d expect from a decent youth hostel. It was pretty clean and the bathrooms were definitely just as nice as some of the good ones in European hostels (and better than some - anyone remember the questionable showers in Prague? Eww). They had free computers with internet access, the staff was nice and helpful, and there was a bar/restaurant run by the hostel too. The food there was pretty expensive, but we splurged on the last day and had a legitimate western breakfast – first since I’ve been here, and last for a while I’m sure! The drinks were overpriced, but that’s pretty much the case in all the bars. 

view of the Bell Tower from the hostel

The best part was definitely the people. We stayed in the 10 bunk dorm rooms and got to meet some cool people from all over: Canada, Germany, Poland, France, etc. We had an epic night out to a club called One+One, complete with drunken Chinese friends with questionable dancing skills (see facebook videos for more on this).  It’s comforting to find you’re not the only one off on some crazy journey through China, or wherever. It’s so cool to think about how you’re kind of intersecting each other’s paths at different points, and you get to share a small part of your journey with them, and vice versa. 

THE SIGHTS: Alright, time for the best part. You know, the reason we actually went to Xi’an. It is one of the oldest cities in China and considered one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. It is therefore overflowing with historical artifacts and places of significance – a treat for any history buff and a must-see if you’re making a trip to China. Here’s some of what we saw while we were there (as always, refer to fb for more pictures!)
small goose pagodoa
ride 'em cowboy!

 XI’AN MUSEUM and SMALL GOOSE PAGODA: Our first stop of the trip was to this (free!) museum. We actually meant to go the Shaanxi History Museum, which is more famous and supposed to be much better. But, due to my poor sense of direction and an overcrowded bus system, this is where we ended up. We still managed to see some pretty cool stuff, including a scale model of the old capital, then known as Chang’an. The grounds were quite beautiful and included the Small Goose Pagoda. We even managed to find a Belgian tour group to stalk and eavesdrop on some historical facts en francais!

best fountain ever

model of the old city

BELL TOWER and DRUM TOWER: Since these structures were located just outside our hostel, I got many late night shots of them all lit up in their splendor. We only paid to go up the Bell Tower, which was a little disappointing on the inside. But, we got some good shots off the top and the entrance fee was only about 4 USD, so not too bad.  
bell tower

view of the drum tower from the bell tower

OLD CITY WALLS: Instead of renting bikes (which looks like it would have been rather unpleasant given the bumpy and uneven nature of the surfaces), we decided to set off walking the 9 mile track around the city. The views were so-so, but the people-watching was fantastic! We only made it about ¾ of the way around before getting off in favor of some souvenir shopping at the south gate.

winning outfit of the week on the city walls
chillin' at the mosque

GREAT MOSQUE: Located in the Muslim Quarter, the Great Mosque of Xi’an is the oldest in China, founded in the 700s. It was a neat mix of cultures, with distinctly Chinese architecture covered in Arabic calligraphy.
XINGQINGGONG GARDENS: A little off of the normal tourist path, these huge gardens are located further away from the center of the city. As long as you avoid the cheesy Chinese amusement park rides and novelty pedal boats, it’s really quite beautiful. Of course you can’t avoid the curious Chinese youngsters stalking you and wanting photos with the waiguoren, but it makes a nice (free) escape from the overcrowded tourist attractions. 

 BIG GOOSE PAGODA: Welcome to Xi’an’s most overpriced tourist attraction. It costs 50 RMB to get in and another 30 to climb the tower, and really, the views weren’t that great. There’s some neat architecture on the grounds and some beautiful Buddhist statues, but I’m not entirely sure it was worth it. That being said, it makes for some beautiful night photos. One must see here, however, is the fountain show. Supposedly the most expensive in Asia, it was really impressive! The music was cheesy, but the fountains were awesome. Oh, and it’s huge! Although you might need an umbrella if you get close enough during the grand finale!