Monday, September 27, 2010

Mid-Autumn Festival

September 22 had the honor of not only being Frodo and Bilbo's birthday, but also Mid-Autumn Festival in China. As the name suggests, this is the middle of fall, which obviously seems early for you guys back home. It's supposed to be the time when the moon is brightest, and traditionally people exchange moon cakes and eat dinner at a restaurant.

We received dozens of moon cakes from students and Helen and John. Most were filled with a bean paste, which wasn't very appetizing to our tastes, but if we were lucky (which Andrew always was and I never was) we bit into ones flavored with fruit instead.
Moon cakes on sale at the supermarket
Moon cakes, traditional and "European"

Helen and John took us to dinner that night and we shared a whole chicken, feet, head, and all, in a hot-pot. Andrew was brave and tried the head, complete with cockscomb, but I stuck to veggies and beef.

Recently we started taking Chinese classes with John, who doesn't speak any English but means well. We've had four classes so far, and I've only cried once! (I get very emotional under stress.) Let me tell you, Chinese is HARD. Each word in Chinese has four different "tones" and each tone gives a different meaning to the word. Being literally tone-deaf, it's really difficult for me to hear the difference between these words, and even harder to imitate them. I'm going to just stay away from words that could insult people, like the number 4, which also means "death" if pronounced a different way. But, at least we're learning useful phrases that will hopefully make communication easier in our city. Andrew is a champ and can pronounce Chinese even better than John!
Say what??

Of course, the joke is that in just two weeks we're going to Shanghai, where they speak a completely different dialect of Chinese, and where surely no one will understand us or vice versa. This will be our first vacation, and I'm a little nervous. We'll be taking an overnight train to Guilin, a beautiful city down south known for its karst formations and beautiful countryside.
Guilin, courtesy of Google Images

Seeing as how this city is 2,300 km away, it's going to take us over 24 hours to get there by train. After three days there, we'll head to Shanghai to see the World Expo before flying back to Qinhuangdao at the end of the week. With the amount of traveling we're doing, it's like taking a 10 day trip to the U.S. and flying first to California, then New York, then Florida. Except on trains.

We've almost made some foreign friends here. After stalking people on Facebook and Couchsurfing, I've made contact with a handful of foreigners and we're in the process of arranging meetings with them.

Things here have been both slow and busy. We spend our time planning lessons, going to class, cooking, cleaning, watching movies, shopping; in short, all the normal things you probably do in your lives. Nothing has been overtly exciting recently, thus the lack of blog posts. My guess is that after our vacation, which begins October 11th, we'll have more news to report before going back into dormancy until Thanksgiving.

Despite the many problems France caused us, I find myself missing it more and more. Mostly I miss being able to communicate, but I also miss the friends I had there, both foreign and French, and the charming little city of Orleans. Stepping outside my door here, I am bombarded with a cacophony of car horns, car alarms, and 3 million people packed on the streets. I've been having terrible headaches and I've come to dread even going outside for shopping because of the noise and all the people. I'm definitely finding that I am not a city person!

What's the "Inedidible Method"???
National flag of China

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Beijing Trip #1

Bus ride to Beijing

We finally made it out of Qinhuangdao! We couldn't figure out how to get express train tickets during the back-to-school rush, so we had to settle for a four hour bus ride instead. However, compared to Mali, we traveled in luxury. We didn't have to share our seats with anyone, the bus was air-conditioned, quiet, and there was even a bathroom break mid-way! And thanks to the portable DVD player my mom gave me last summer, we easily entertained ourselves with Heroes (Thanks Mom!). Once we arrived in Beijing, we had a little trouble finding the metro station which would take us to our hotel, but a nice woman stopped and asked us if we needed help (this was a friendly trend we noticed throughout our stay in Beijing). We arrived to our courtyard style hotel in plenty of time to deposit our things and go to dinner down the street.
Red Lantern House
Despite only knowing about three words in Chinese, we managed to order a delicious and filling meal for about $10. Fortified, we decided to walk to the nearby park on our map. This is where we learned our first lesson about Beijing: Distances may be farther than they appear. We never found the park, despite walking for about an hour. Our education continued the next day when we tried to go anywhere in the city. Despite taking advantage of the new, cheap metro system, it seemed that every place we wanted to visit was a good twenty minute walk from the metro. It really cut into our day.
Lemongrass chicken, spicy potatoes, and corn with pinenuts

We spent most of our only full day in Beijing at the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is an enclosed collection of palaces that served as the administrative center for the Emperor and his three thousand concubines. As you can imagine, the place is huge! Like the city itself, it was quite a hike between each pavilion, hall, and palace. After awhile they all start to look the same, but the gardens were spectacular.

We also saw some interesting jewelry, clocks, gold buddhas, sculptures, and lots of jade!

There's a new style hitting the toddler scene: butt-less pants! There're all the rage in China, and you'll see many a kiddie squatting on the side of the road to do their business. Parents, never buy diapers or even use a toilet again!

The highlight of the day, for me, was buying some imperial Manchu headgear, which cost us around $2. The hats turned us into rock stars, and the Chinese were lined up asking to take pictures with us (or were not-so-discreetly snapping pictures from a distance). It reminded me of the time we were leaving the supermarket and a car pulled up, rolled down its windows, and a group of Chinese snapped our picture and then drove away. But really, can you blame them? Look at us! We're a pretty fine-looking couple! ;)
Nine Dragon Screen

Another memorable moment of our visit to the Forbidden City was when we stumbled upon this deserted rocky area, and were quite pleased until a guard showed up, took our camera from us, snapped some pictures of us, and then proceeded to kiss me vigorously on both cheeks. It was really weird. What is this, France?
A little confused...

Despite our extensive traveling experience, we were still Shanghai-ed in Beijing. Usually the fact that we don't speak any Chinese works in our favor, but in the Forbidden City English-speakers abound. One women told us there was an art exhibit going on, so dumbly we followed her and spent nearly an hour looking at beautiful paintings. In the end, we bought a set of paintings on silk that show the four seasons. It was rather expensive, and we both are experiencing Buyer's Remorse. But they are pretty, no?

After a long day of walking, we decided to make for the foreign bookstore and treat ourselves to some literature. If you know me at all, I'm sure you can imagine how hard it's been for me to live the past two months without anything to read but my guidebook! In Beijing we were able to find a very decent, albeit expensive, collection of English books. A real bargain was classical novels for about $3 each. We picked up Portrait of a Lady, The Travels of Marco Polo, a collection of four Shakespeare comedies, a book on Taoism, and Arabian Nights. I also splurged and picked up a new paperback, Empress Orchid, which is a historical fiction about the last Empress of China. It was really interesting and now I want to read the sequel. After making our purchases and chatting with some other ex-pats in the store, we explored the area a bit and discovered an awesome market where they sold scorpions on a skewer. Despite their wriggling bodies, Andrew couldn't resist and he ordered some to go. A few minutes later, the scorpions were light and crispy, and thankfully dead. I watched in horrified fascination as he devoured them and am not looking forward to a repeat performance. Next time he wants to try the big Emperor scorpions instead of the puny ones.

This market brought us lots of good finds, such as Lucky Cat. Andrew has been wanting a Lucky Cat since we got here. The cats are usually found in restaurants, and are supposed to bring money. He's like one of those bobbleheads; he constantly moves his paw up and down, which I find very soothing. And he really does bring good luck! When we returned to the hotel, I found that we had an extra 100 RMB more than I thought!

Our final day in Beijing was spent purusing the foreign supermarkets in town. We had been so excited about the presence of a Carrefour, a French chain that we frequented in Orleans, but we were really disappointed. Hoping for something better, we headed across town to Jenny Lou's.

Bingo! This place had (almost) everything! Frosting, BBQ sauce, spices, bakeware, cheese, pasta, even tampons! We dropped a cool $50 in that store, which doesn't compare with what we used to spend in Bamako at La Fourmi, but it still felt like a lot to us. The bigger problem was not our finances, but the time we had remaining before we had to catch our bus. Remember how I said it took a long time to even get to a metro station? Well, add the twenty minute walk with a stop at Subway for a little taste from home, plus the run back to the hotel to get our bag, and we were really running late. For about two hours we ran, ran, ran; literally! I had to leave the bags with Andrew and run the fifteen minute walk to the bus station from the metro to keep our bus from leaving for Qinhuangdao. Along the way, I got a lot of stares, whistles, and what I only assume were inappropriate remarks (never run in short shorts. Ever.) When I arrived at the station, I managed to communicate by pointing at my ring that my husband was behind me. How is it that I don't even know the Chinese word for husband?? Anyway, we just made the bus in time and began the long journey back home, which included a rest stop where we saw a big truck full of doggies. Dinner, anyone?

Speaking of husbands, Andrew and I went to Beijing to celebrate our four-year wedding anniversary. It was definitely the best one we've celebrated so far. I gifted Andrew some cool new T's, and most importantly, I got his pocket-watch fixed. The watch was a gift from me to him on our wedding day, but through years of accidentally washing it in the machine it stopped working some time ago. Andrew being Andrew, he never got it fixed, so I felt it was time to intervene.

Andrew gave me my only real desire, a Mop Dog of my very own! Somehow the little guy even resembles the real thing (and he smells better!). He also got me a pair of beautiful purple earrings and matching phoenix/dragon amethyst pendants. The phoenix and dragon are popular lovers in Chinese mythology.