The Inner Mongolian China Brog

Friday, July 07, 2006

End It On This

I suppose this entry marks the end of an era, albeit a short one. I write this in Tokyo, having finished out my year at the Northeast Hope International School. Time to catch you up on what went down during my last few weeks there. This blog is in serious need of a capstone.

After a few "sports days" (think Beijing 2008 NHIS-style), all six of us laowai, along with Chinese friends Judy and Ada, took our last monthly holiday to the ancient city of Xi'an. We spent one day seeing the requisite tourist sites, including the terracotta warriors and a museum that resonated with me to such an extent that I can remember neither its name nor what it contained. So...yeah. Pretty groovy.

The next day, all of us save for Emma and Ben spent the day climbing Huashan, one of the 5 sacred peaks in China. I'm pretty proud of making it to the top, given my less-than-desirable physical condition, despite the fact that I work out regularly. Just goes to show that no amount of Firm Fanny Lifting can prepare you for a big mountain kicking your ass. It was worth every drop of sweat, however, as the views were more than rewarding. The scenery (and perfect, clear weather accompanying it) was some of the most spectacular I've seen in China.

The euphoria was not to last, however - that night's dinner assaulted me (and the others, though to a lesser extent) with a particularly disgusting case of food poisoning. I won't go into detail, but I spent that night going poo-poo every 45 minutes and then I threw up violently into a wastebasket by my bed the next morning. I don't recommend getting food poisoning when staying at a hostel; it's kinda rough having to go through all that mess atop a communal squatter as opposed to a private Western bathroom.

Needless to say, I wasn't at the top of my game the next day. I missed out on the last of our tourist adventures in favor of moaning in pain and sleeping when possible. And of course the 12-hour overnight train ride from Beijing to Tongliao was especially pleasant since there were only hard seat tickets and we sat upright the whole time.

Our innards a bit worse for wear, we arrived home in time for Penny's Wedding, part deux. This time, she was dressed in full Western-style white fluffiness, and only the closest friends and family members were in attendance (I'm not kidding when I say I'm kind of a big deal in China). We got to watch as she and her now-husband made the symbolic move from her parents' home into his parents' high-rise fancy-schmancy apartment. This all started at about 7 AM, so we were treated to the singular pleasure of enduring toasts of baijiu on shaky digestive systems before 9 AM, when we'd all moved to an event hall for the wedding feast. I was feeling more like a human Cuisinart than an honored guest, but along with my foreign colleagues, I managed to congratulate the happy couple (in CHINESE, on a MICROPHONE) and avoid the roasted rabbit going round and round on the lazy susan at our table, buck teeth still in place.

The last of our travels behind us, the two weeks of teaching that remained flew by in a blur of final exams, tears, and farewells. It was kind of an out-of-body experience; on one hand, the end had seemed such a long time coming, and on the other, it seemed to sneak up on me too soon. It's a very hard feeling to describe. In some ways, it was not unlike having to graduate from college and move on from the life you've made for yourself there (especially since I went through all this with 5 other kids in my same life-position, 2 others of whom attended BC). When I signed my contract to work at NHIS, I viewed it as somewhat of a cop-out, a time-buyer. I'd effectively delayed reality from descending upon me in all its responsible glory, though in what I consider a worthwhile manner. I knew that if I ever wanted to have this kind of experience, I had to jump on it immediately, before the bills, debt and wrinkles that will eventually find me, no matter how long I keep running. While I had no intention of doing a half-assed job in China, I think it's safe to admit to myself (and the Internet) that I was not going to take this position overly-seriously, in terms of a step along my career path. More like a red brick in my yellow brick road to Oz (Oz being, of course, where I'm rich, famous, and well-adjusted without the aid of prescription drugs).

So here I am on the other end of this year-long experience, having emerged a little stronger and wiser, just like a Christina Aguilera song. And I'm glad I did it for every reason. I began this year with expectations neither of myself nor of the school, thus securing the impossibility of disappointment. I did, however, doubt on various occasions my ability to really make a difference for my students. Those doubts evaporated when I saw the looks on their faces when I told them I was leaving. Some of them simply asked when I was coming back, so you can imagine my inner squirm when I had to say, "bu hui lai - I'm not coming back." The 4th graders were pretty cool with it, on the whole, being 11 years old, most of them - seasoned citizens of the school, clearly. Plus I'd only spent half the year as their teacher, though no doubt the better half, Clay being an obvious incompetent. The first and second graders were another story entirely; I had several from each class sobbing uncontrollably, and there was me in the middle of it all with no way to console them, whether they could understand it or not, and no means of distraction at my disposal. Some of them decided to sign their names and write "I love you" up and down my arms; others made me cards complete with their picture and phone number; and still others were clearly desperate just to give me something of theirs - I got picture books, pencil boxes, clipboards, origami...even a hard boiled egg. I couldn't take it all with me, but I kept what I could and took lots of pictures.

Obviously, not every child flourished under my tutelage. I could hardly expect that, having no training in teaching whatsoever, but the kids made it clear to me that I was important to them, and I don't think I could ask for much more. I was overwhelmed as well by my Chinese colleagues, who appeared to struggle with the fact of our leaving, likely never to return. So much so, in fact, that I found myself feeling as though I was wrong for leaving; that I must be a horrible person indeed for moving on after fulfilling my contractual responsibilities. It's a bit of a Mary Poppins scenario, though. The "wind changed," and even though I felt quite at home in Tongliao and even bonded in a way to the students and teachers, it's time for me to move on.

Clay, Emma and I were seen off at the airport by a handful of our closest friends in the middle of a thunderstorm. Tongliao was crying because we were leaving, they said. The three of us were so exhausted from the past week's events, and having to say so many goodbyes didn't make it any easier, so I'm sure we looked a pretty picture, awaiting our flight to Beijing slumped over our carry-ons, staring into space. We managed to have one last hurrah in Beijing, though, and had a great dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant in the city. One night in the airport hotel and we were waiting once more the next morning, this time in the arrivals Starbucks...and this time we wouldn't all be getting on the same flight. It was a little like MTV's The Real World: we'd been thrown together as practically strangers, and now we had to leave one by one, unable to imagine going back to life as it was before meeting each other. Clay was the first to go, then me, and finally Emma. It was sad, but bittersweet is a good word to describe this whole thing. We know we'll see each other again. I have a feeling our paths will cross again, like a Venn diagram (that's some middle school math for ya).

As I waited in line at passport control, just an hour away from my flight to Tokyo, an older American gentleman approached and caught my eye quite deliberately. I smiled back, too wrapped up in the drama of my recent life to give him the suspicious treatment, and he said, "Can I assume by that beautiful smile that you're going home?" I gave him a straight answer, and he didn't ask me anything more, but it made me stop and think. Good question, sir.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Turning Japanese

Late May finds Diana in a bit of a different state of mind; my time here is approaching its end with increasing speed, it seems. And of course just now I'm starting to dig in my heels and wish time would slow down so I could be sure to enjoy the remaining weeks to the fullest. For all my bitching and itching to get outta here, I'm definitely coming to realize how much I appreciate the friends I've made here, foreign and Chinese, and how really unique the whole experience has been. I suppose it's one of life's dirtier tricks that you don't usually experience such sentiments while in the thick of things. Plays just like a Joni Mitchell song. Shoulda seen it coming.

Anyway, I took my May vacation to Tokyo and spent the week with Mom. We had a lot of fun enjoying the various nice things Tokyo has to offer - sumo, museums, food, etc. I got to meet some more of her colorful expat friends too. They'll make this summer more interesting for sure. See, while in Japan, I took the opportunity to interview for a job I'd applied for with an American school in Tokyo, and wouldn'tcha know, I got it. So I'll be spending the summer as an English teacher for the American School in Japan's summer day camp, and I have to say, I'm pretty jazzed. It'll give me 2 full months in Tokyo - enough time for me to get a flavor for what it's like to live there, but not so much (hopefully) that Mom and Dad feel like I'm a permanent growth in their guest room. So, Japanese 3rd-graders, beware - Diana Sensei is coming to town. Better behave, or I know of a certain Inner Mongolian boarding school where I could send you to get some good healthy Gobi grit pounded into ya.

Speaking of which, I guess I can't rightly call this the Inner Mongolian China Brog for much longer. I'll have to rename it with something equally as witty and clever, yet "Tokyo Talk". Yeah, that's a keeper. In any case, I'll have a lot more time to ponder it once I've left Northeast Hope International School. My remaining time has dwindled to a mere 4 weeks, in which this coming week we'll have monthly exams, following which I'll take one last trip, this time to Xian for a week. Then I've got 2 weeks to give finals, pack my crap up and haul ass to Japan.

And I can hear you all the way from here - you want to know what happens after I'm done in Tokyo. I have an answer to that, and it's a punch in the face, because I wish I knew, but I don't. I'll have a real answer eventually, and I can promise you'll be the first to know, because if you're reading this at all you clearly have nothing better to do than follow my not-really-that-interesting-even-though-I-make-it-seem-so life. I'm about to book myself a ticket back to NYC for late August. The suggestion box is open.

Monday, April 17, 2006

"Eight-Step Program For What Ails China"

President Hu Jintao recently published an 8-point set of moral guidelines to live by as China evolves economically. Mom clipped an article about it from the Washington Post so I could read about it from a Western perspective, and though I'm ashamed to admit it, after living here for over 9 months and getting to know this country's people and culture, the following made me laugh out loud.

1) Love the motherland, do not harm it.
2) Serve, don't disserve the people.
3) Uphold science, don't be ignorant and unenlightened.
4) Work hard, don't be lazy.
5) Be united and help each other, don't benefit at the expense of others.
6) Be honest, not profit-mongering.
7) Be disciplined and law-abiding, not chaotic and lawless.
8) Know plain living and hard struggle, do not wallow in luxuries.

And that's not even the best part.

The closing paragraphs to this article are as follows: "Despite the noise generated by party propaganda organs, some Chinese questioned whether Hu's preaching would ever reach officials in the small towns and villages where disenchantment with the party is strongest. 'It won't even get to provincial capitals,' said Kang, the social scientist.

"Even in Beijing, a group of recent graduates from prestigious Peking University, all of whom work in governement-connected jobs, said they had not heard of the eight aphorisms after more than a week of the campaign. And in Inner Mongolia's distant Tongliao City, Bai Lianhua, a 46-year-old homemaker, said in a telephone conversation that she had no idea what they were.

"'I guess it's the same kind of thing as the harmonious society, right?' she said."

Tongliao, represent.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Spring Festivus for the Rest of Us, Season Finale

After a lovely experience with All Nippon Airways' in-seat individual video screens, Emma and I arrived in Tokyo, ready for a little break from China. We made it to my parents' apartment with no problem, though I was a tad surprised to find that only selected locations in Narita airport would exchange Chinese RMB...I'd love to think there was just some internal issue with the bank, but I'm pretty sure it's just discrimination.

To be honest, there's not quite as much to tell about our time in Tokyo as there is about the weeks preceding it...not because it wasn't delightfully amusing, but because a) I've been there a number of times before (and it wasn't Emma's first time either, since I brought her, Clay and Courtney there in November), and b) we literally just did not try to cram as much activity into a short amount of time as we did in China. There was less of a touristy goal to our Japan time. Some might argue that it was time wasted; on the contrary - I don't know if you've ever travelled for as long as we'd been travelling by that time (about 3 weeks), but it is tiring! We were ready for a vacation from our vacation, and since neither of us was new to Tokyo, we decided to take it easy. Mom was out of town, but Dad used his free time to treat us to lots of home cookin', a photography museum, and a number of meals in Tokyo's fine restaurants. Emma and I even woke up before dawn one morning to check out Tsukiji fish market, which was pretty cool - it bustles with just about every kind of seafood for sale that you could imagine, plus it satisfied my lifelong wish to see a six-foot tuna on ice. Sushi can be such a sterile experience, you know.

Visiting Tokyo always feels like the lap of luxury (especially what with its hot showers and all - something I've learned to live without here in Tongliao). The longer I've lived in China, in a rural area no less, the more I find myself starved for city life, so I eat it up whenever I get to Tokyo (or Beijing or Shanghai...). Turns out discovering what you don't like can be as helpful as what you do like, meaning you can find me in a big city following the end of my Chinese contract. What city? Well that's asking too much. I'm not ready to relinquish my wild card status just yet. Anyway, even though Emma and I soaked up our Japan time with relish, I was still excited for the next move, which was USA for me!

We flew to Beijing, where Emma and I parted ways: she for Shenzhen, me for San Francisco. From the moment I checked in for my United Airlines flight (business class - that's just how I roll. Paid for with my own frequent flyer miles, too!), I was savoring every single moment. From the time I spent sipping cappuccino in the Red Carpet Club looking out the window at the boarding the aircraft, where I got to sit upstairs and had 2 seats to myself, due to the empty the delicious cup of warm nuts they give you before planning my movie viewing schedule on my personal TV screen (Housesitter followed by Pride and Prejudice and then Walk the Line) barely sleeping because I was too busy enjoying the Western plane food and arriving in San Francisco, where I was genuinely shocked when the passport control officer spoke to me in being picked up by my big brother!

Starting with driving out of SFO, I was totally over-stimulated for basically the whole time I spent in California. Reverse culture shock, I think they call it. Fortunately, I didn't spend enough time in the States for it to fully hit, so I only experienced the out-of-body re-adjustment stage and was put back in my Chinese cradle before I had a chance to rebound. To give you an idea of what I mean, the smell of the grocery store, for example, was completely overpowering to me. Anyway, it was so much fun to see Scott, Traci, Cameron, Cole and Connor. Oh and Shadow, their new black lab puppy, who goobered me every chance she got. I got to see their new house and neighborhood of Stockton, as well as Cameron's school (where he's the only white kid) and Scott's newest love: Stockton Nissan, which is a very shagadelic establishment, at least until the new dealership is built. Highlights of my California time included a pro hockey game between none other than the Stockton Thunder and the Fresno...crap I forget. Does it even matter? Fresno's SO one year ago. On with the highlights: the hockey game, a trip to the Jelly Belly factory (seriously, I'd always wondered how jelly beans were made), seeing Curious George with Traci and the boys (my first non-bootleg movie since July!), and a fabulous afternoon on the boat with the whole family. Even in February, the weather was nice and comfortable. Aah,'s enough to make a girl want to move there...or is it? I'm not telling yet.

Valentine's Day saw me on a plane to Boston, where I arrived considerably early, but Andre was already there to pick me up, thanks to the wonders of internet flight tracking! We headed out to Ashland, where I'd get to stay with Lane, Andre and my newest niece, Clara, who was born January 20 (I don't even know where I was at that point) and had her 1-month birthday while I was there. On the drive west from Logan, I again had the out-of-body feeling, driving through downtown Boston, looking up at the Prudential building and the Citgo had been so long since I'd seen Boston, yet it was my home for 4 years, so some part of me could have tricked my brain into thinking this whole China thing was just a dream or something...but then I looked down at the dirt that covered my winter jacket by that point and realized there was no other place in the world that could have made me that filthy. Even a thorough dry-cleaning in Stockton hadn't quite lifted the stains...perhaps one day I'll call that jacket a metaphor for my year in China. Some part of it will always stay with me wherever I go, that's for sure.

In Ashland, I found a weary new mommy and a cute-as-can-be teeny baby. For the week I spent in Massachusetts, which flew by before I knew it, I enjoyed trying to help out with the little things it's harder to accomplish with a newborn in the house. I made more trips to the grocery store than I can count, had fun playing Martha Stewart and laying out breakfast for Lane and Andre each morning, and just tried to be decent company while helping out in general. Mom and Dad were in the States and made a trip up to Mass for one night to see me and Clara, at which point I took the opportunity to rendezvous with some BC buddies in Beantown proper. I stayed with KriSten and Kathleen for a night, and we went out to dinner at Sunset Grille, an old haunt of ours, where way more people turned up than I ever expected to see in one random night, so I was totally tickled to see so many of my favorite familiar faces (something tells me that I cannot take full credit for being the motivation for the reunion, but I can pretend!). We headed over to Lansdowne and stayed at Jake Ivory's til the place closed at 2, and I think I drank every delicious cocktail I could think of that's unavailable to me in China.

And of course I awoke the next morning completely sober and clear-headed.

Satisfied that I'd seen just about as many friends as I could possibly expect to see in one night in Boston, I managed to cram in a couple more Beantown essentials before heading back to Ashland: a burrito at Anna's Taqueria, a dish of JP Licks coffee-oreo ice cream, a tall skim one-pump mocha latte at Starbucks, a purchase-free pilgrimage to Trader Joe's to visit Kara at work, a stroll around Coolidge Corner (which resulted in a $75 purchase at Barnes and Noble...pretty much a month's salary for me...), slices of Cheesecake Factory cheesecake for myself, Lane and Andre (Craig's Crazy Carrot Cake Cheesecake, Godiva, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, respectively), and even a visit to my now-alma mater, Boston College, where I sat in on a Synergy rehearsal. Walking across that campus as a graduate was definitely one of the trippier experiences I've had recently, realizing that I might as well be any old Joe wandering onto campus, as far as the other students I saw walking around were concerned. Leaving college has been one of the harder things I've had to do in life, and thank God I jumped right into a job that yanked me from Boston completely, because it was not just a few memories that assaulted my consciousness as I walked to O'Connell house and drove the familiar surrounding streets back to Ashland.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't anticipate the day of my flight back to Beijing with some degree of dread. I'd done all I could do to convince myself it was no big deal, since I'd be basically staring down the homestretch of my time here by the time I got back, which even included 3 more week-long vacations, plus the fact that my sister was completely composed upon my departure. ;) The fact was, however, that this was the first time since arriving here on July 14, 2005, that I'd allowed myself to think the words, "I don't want to be in China anymore."

The catalyst of that thought was actually none other than fellow foreign teacher Patrick, who played a DIRTY, ROTTEN, NO-GOOD trick on us all by emailing us around New Year's Day, saying he'd been elected to Canadian Parliament and wouldn't be returning to Tongliao. Before you think I'm a COMPLETE sucker (which I am, because I still fell for it), I should tell you that this email was supported by a website that proved as much. Where he found that website, I don't know, but the punchline is that it hit me like a ton of bricks. First Adam, then Courtney and Jacob, and now Pat? The most enthusiastic member of our foreign clan? The one who's a couple of chopsticks away from becoming a Party member? My world was rocked, needless to say. By the time I went back to Beijing, I knew the truth, of course, but I was still jarred into double-checking my own motivation to be here. I can't be entirely sure what impression of the big picture I've given to the outside world through my blogging, but let me assure you that this is not an easy job. I take it in stride and spend a lot of energy putting a positive spin on everything; in fact I honestly feel guilty whenever I have something bad to say about it or find myself not wanting to do my work - that's how bad I want this to have been a positive experience. And that's not to say it hasn't. I'm glad every day I made the decision I made. This has been very worthwhile and I do not for a minute regret coming here. But it's still hard, and that's one fact I can't dress up and put bows and flowers around.

I digress. I did in fact board a plane bound for Beijing on February 23rd, and I arrived on the 24th, a little thrown by the time change, but none too worse for wear otherwise. No mental breakdowns or anything, I'm happy to report. I was actually the last of the foreigners to arrive home to Tongliao. We all spent a day or two recovering from our various degrees of jet lag, catching up on travel stories, buying groceries, eating Bobo Loban's delicious food, and basically putting our lives back together in anticipation of the return to teaching, which was no small task. Six weeks away from work has more of an effect than one might think. It took a lot of putting myself in the zone, forcibly so, to reestablish myself as an English teacher.

This task was made a bit harder by the no-less-than doubling of students I was responsible for teaching. Let me remind you that Courtney and Jacob had left our beloved NHIS by this point, leaving somewhat of a void in English teaching for the high school and kindergarten. The remaining 6 of us were, as a result, redistributed, and I was given the Primary School's 4th grade to teach in addition to my 1st and 2nd grade. Interestingly, however, my schedule did not suffer. It was the students who were dealt the blow, unfortunately. Because the school was now short of foreign English teachers, the students were scheduled 2 English lessons per week instructed by myself, as opposed to the previous 4. I actually adjusted to my new students and distribution of lessons quite quickly and easily. The 4th grade is really a pleasure to teach, as they're capable of so much more in the reading and writing department than the 1st and 2nd grades, who are practically babies. Discipline is also somewhat less of an ongoing battle with them, which is refreshing.

Flash forward to the present, which finds us mid-April, and me 2 months and a trip to Beijing with Mike later, only about 2 months away from the end of my time in China. I'll go to Tokyo to spend some time with Mom and celebrate my 23rd (yuck) birthday next week, following which it'll be only 4 weeks of teaching til the next week-long vacation, following which it'll be only 2 weeks til we blow this joint, which is crazy to think about. But who's counting, right? (That's one of those things I feel guilty about - counting the weeks til I'm done here.)

I guess the punchline is that there's only so much more you'll be hearing from me in China. I mean, can I in good conscience continue the Inner Mongolian China Brog when I am in fact not brogging from Inner Mongoria? Well, we'll see. The real question for Diana at this point is, where to next? I wish I knew, but wherever, whatever it is, I will no doubt be extremely fashionable, important, and influential. Hmph.

Spring Festivus for the Rest of Us, Part V

New Year's Day (January 28) found me and Emma in Shanghai, enjoying the company of John and Lynn Patton, our newest friends, who offered us a place to stay when they heard we'd be in their neck of the woods. Their PuDong apartment has an unbeatable view of 2 of Shanghai's most recognizable landmarks: the Jinmao tower (which is the tallest building in Shanghai and in China [?] and houses a Hyatt on the upper floors) and the Oriental Pearl Tower, a space-needley structure whose nighttime pulsating rainbow lights had us transfixed more than a couple times.

It was definitely a singular experience to be in one of China's most cosmopolitan and unique cities on New Year's Day. We took the opportunity to ferry ourselves across the river and into Old Town, where we browsed the streets full of old fashioned little buildings and temples (with no shortage of ramshackle, impoverished-looking areas, might I add). We once again found ourselves among thousands of people, shoulder to shoulder, but being in no particular hurry and having expected as much on a national holiday, we let the human current sweep us along, happy to observe China and the Chinese on one of their most important holidays. In the 2 full days we spent in Shanghai exploring the Old Town, French Concession (including the site of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party) and the Bund, we were witness to a small variety of New Year's traditions, the hardest of which to miss being the fireworks, of course. They went off every night for hours (and sometimes during the day as well...actually pretty much constantly). In gratitude to our extremely generous hosts, we decided to purchase a large New Year's fruit basket for John and Lynn, though in the process of doing so on a sidewalk of no particular note, I managed to get my foot run over by an ATV. I really should learn to get out of the way...not like the road provides space enough to drive or anything.

We continued our visit to the mid-eastern coast of China with a couple days in Suzhou, which is known for its silk production and a city centre riddled with canals. We arrived there envisioning rather of a Chinese Amsterdam...but that wasn't quite the case. Turns out we'd been spoiled by the charm of little cities like Dali and Yangshuo, and Suzhou, though not without its attractions, was not everything we'd have had it be. Though it is one of the oldest cities in China, you can quickly tell that it's being overrun by the trappings of bigger cities, as the wide selection of fast food and Starbucks immediately makes obvious. That's not to say we didn't enjoy ourselves; in fact, we savored not one but two meals in the Pizza Hut, finding ourselves unable to face the battle of finding a Chinese restaurant that appealed to us. We had been sampling local cuisines right along, but by this point in our trip, there was little that we found extraordinary enough to warrant passing up a pizza we knew would be brand-controlledly tasty. We also paid visits to the Silk Museum, which was very interesting, and to a couple of Suzhou's gardens and pagodas, which are unlike anything I'd seen until then (not to mention the filming site of a couple scenes in Big Bird in China. Yeah you read that right.).

After a couple days in Suzhou, we trundled back to Shanghai to spend one last night with John and Lynn and to experience the view from the Shanghai Hyatt's Cloud 9 bar on the 88th floor of the Jinmao Tower. We should have known better by then than to try that, though, with our track record of crummy weather. It was too cloudy to see anything but our faces reflected in the window panes.

The buttcrack of dawn the next morning saw us pile into a cab headed for PuDong airport to board the first international flight of our odyssey. Though we'd had a ton of fun experiencing a truly wide expanse of what China has to offer, I felt satisfied that I'd experienced enough to content myself that I'd taken full advantage of my time here and seen a comprehensive selection of cities and towns. And I couldn't help but be excited at the thought of leaving the country for a destination that never fails to prove itself China's opposite, and refreshingly so, as one tends to tire quickly of the less charming aspects... Konnichiwa, Japan!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Spring Festivus for the Rest of Us, Part IV

I can say without a shred of guilt that Emma and I deserved every minute spent on the tropical island of Hainan, just off the coast of mainland China. It's not the easiest place in the world to get to, but well worth it for sure. We chose the easiest possible route, which even so involved an overnight train ride from Guilin to Guangzhou. Anyone unfortunate enough to have to experience Guangzhou's main train station will surely be quick to tell you that it tops their list of places never to return to ever again, even if plague, cholera and leprosy demanded that their train ride originate or end there. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes it as a seething mass of humanity, and I would now state for the record that that is the most accurate statement I have yet to read from it. From the moment we disembarked our train, we found ourselves in a solid mass of people, making it difficult to see for 2 feet ahead of us, let alone find a way out. We had the entire afternoon to kill before our flight would leave for Hainan that evening, and we had planned to take the Metro down to Shamian Island, a teeny escape of charm amidst the sewer that is Guangzhou. However, after I don't even know how long of shoving through crowds only to find ourselves having made no progress toward anything resembling public transportation, we were driven to desperation by the heat, noise and crowds. We had all our earthly possessions on our backs, which were beginning to seriously weigh us down, and I can only imagine the endless string of expletives and obscenities streaming from my mouth as hysteria approached my feeble little mind. After what seemed like an eternity, we managed to find a cab that wasn't trying to cheat us, and we had a peaceful Thai lunch on Shamian Dao amongst happy little biracial new families of American parents and freshly-adopted Chinese babies.

A bunch of hours and a short plane ride later, we found ourselves at Hainan's Holiday Inn Sanya Resort, positive that we had located paradise. We had budgeted the rest of our trip such that it allowed us a 3-day stay at this 5-star resort, and yeah, basically anything would have looked luxurious compared to some of the places we'd been staying, but seriously, this place was tops. Our room was fresh and immaculate with crisp white duvets and the token seashell decor surrounding us. We were giddy with excitement upon arrival, and this at about 11 pm, meaning it was dark, and we couldn't even see what the view was like.

Needless to say, I awoke the next morning with Christmas in my heart, and I threw back the curtains, ready to take in the breathtaking view of sandy beach and ocean for miles...and I saw clouds. Yes, the gloomy weather managed to follow us all the way to our tropical escape and lasted the entire time we were there. Not to be discouraged, however, I took in as best I could the view of the beach, the islands beyond, the hammocks strung lazily between palm trees, and Chinese people being really Chinese at the water's edge. Clay once wondered out loud if Chinese people could ever truly relax in a quiet, serene atmosphere, since normal Chinese life is filled with basically constant noise and commotion; I'm now pretty sure that the answer is no. Granted, I don't know if my stay in Sanya is an appropriate measure, being that the national holiday had still not officially begun, meaning the resort was relatively deserted, and the weather was pits, but that doesn't change the fact that as I gazed down from our massive terrace, I saw dozens of deck chairs looking vacant and lonely, while dozens of Chinese frolicked gaily (and fully clothed, many of them) at the water's edge. Being that the weather was not exactly sunbathing-quality, though still lovely and warm, Emma and I sat on our terrace that morning, reading and enjoying the view, losing ourselves in the atmosphere...when somewhere above our heads we heard an all-too-familiar-and-unpleasant noise, and we winced as the resulting loogie landed at our feet. Yep, still in China.

We were determined to enjoy ourselves, though, and we really did. The resort was so fresh and breezy that we never felt the need to leave and seek entertainment elsewhere. And the food was great. Western food done right, for sure, with an unbeatable apple pie. I went through several books, several more cappuccinos, and we even found time for a couple on-site spa treatments (God bless Chinese prices). We each enjoyed an hour-long Thai massage, and sat patiently through 2 hours' worth of manicure and pedicure treatments, which was just boring, though we got our money's worth for sure! Minus the sorry selection of drugstore-brand nail polishes in colors such as acid green and prostitute pink, that is.

I was truly sorry when the time for checking out came, as I found myself wishing once again to see the place I'd been enjoying by direct sunlight, though the fact that we were Shanghai-bound took the sting out of it. Plus, bargain though it was by American standards, we certainly couldn't afford to continue enjoying ourselves quite that much for much longer. It was time haul our pampered butts to Shanghai, into the hospitality of near-strangers.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring Festivus for the Rest of Us, Part III

Guilin (of strange jutting hill/mountain-type formations and Li River fame) greeted us with what could only be described as truly crappy weather. It was overcast, if not raining, the entire time we spent there. That's not to say that its beauty was lost to us, however. It's most definitely a unique-looking city, though the actual city part is without question the least interesting aspect. Among the cool things we did (somewhat limited by the discouraging and chilly weather) were to climb Solitary Beauty Peak for a great 360-degree view of the city, and a visit to the Reed Flute Cave, which boasts cheesy and yet strangely enrapturing colored lights illuminating the amazing stalactites and stalagmites (if I spelled those words right I rule). It contains a vast open space, not unlike some sort of subterranean ballroom, which we learned was used to hide people during the "War Against Japanese Agression" (before it was disco-lit, of course). On our walk through the cave, we had to laugh a little, as there were names for some of the more unique formations, and I suspect that there may have been something lost (or added) in the English translation...though I doubt I could have come up with a better name for the "Centipede Frightened by Reflection in Magic Mirror."

If you visit Guilin, you'll find that basically every source of information (aka tourist trap) will tell you that if you do not take a Li River cruise, you might as well have not visited at all. Not to be considered inadequate tourists, Emma and I complied, though we didn't spring for the cruise with the English-speaking guide (it was quite a bit pricier). As a result, we found ourselves sequestered to a table in the corner of the boat's cabin with the only other foreigners on board: a Swiss couple, a man from Dubai, and his Chinese assistant. Seeing as the weather was not entirely inviting for the whole photographing of scenery thing, we attempted to make conversation with the Swiss couple, though we were periodically interrupted by the man from Dubai, who was of a certain age (no spring chicken) and incapable of talking about anything other than himself, his company/money, his children, and the fact that he "only eat fish" [dusting off of hands].

Several rather uncomfortable hours later, we arrived in Yangshuo, the rumored backpacker's paradise, and aside from the crappy weather, it was exactly that. The scenery, from what we could see, that is, was spectacular, unlike anything else I've ever seen. We stayed at a hostel at the center of "Foreigner's Street," as it's known to the locals. Never before in our Chinese experience had we been confronted with such a concentration of Western-friendly establishments: nearly every sign in English, and many boasting an offering of cappuccino, banana pancakes, burgers, pizza, and other such rarities. Needless to say, we gorged ourselves on a wide selection of our favorite Western foods, most of them surprisingly well done, and at very palatable (pun intended) prices.

Word on the street is that the thing to do in Yangshuo (other than experience the Li River: check) is to rent bikes and pedal through the picturesque countryside. The unspoken word on the street, of course, is to then go back to the aforementioned Western establishments and get schloshed. Well, we did neither, as it turns out. It's hard to be motivated to haul ass around China's landscape when it's cold and drizzly outside and there's delicious coffee and a used bookstore inside. Plus the shopping to be had in Yangshuo for souvenirs and local handicrafts was not to beat by any other of our destinations. Both Emma and I spent a couple more jiao than we'd intended. Other than that, I was amazed to find how content I was with the idea of just sitting in one of the town's many coffee shops and passing the time by people-watching and reading - there's a certain vibe about it that I haven't encountered anywhere else in China. The pace of life is slower; people seem happy, laid-back, interested, and interesting.

I would certainly go back in a heartbeat, if for nothing else than to see Yangshuo by sunlight, so you can imagine our reluctance to leave. The Lonely Planet guidebook says that it's a place where you can easily end up spending more time than you'd planned, and I can see why. Nonetheless, our next destination was the beach, so we didn't spend too very much time sulking.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Spring Festivus for the Rest of Us, Part II

So, we arrived in Kunming several hours later than we'd planned, but in one piece. We stayed the night in the city, but didn't stick around the next day to sightsee (we consider ourselves fairly well-versed in generic-Chinese-big-city-ness). Instead, we hopped on a 5-hour busride to Dali, an itty-bitty ancient city nestled between mountains on one side and an "ear-shaped" lake on the other. A beautiful spot, needless to say. It's surrounded on all four sides by its original walls, more or less, and takes all of a half-hour to walk the length. We decided to stay slightly outside the city's walls in Jim's Tibetan Hotel, which was a great experience in itself. Jim is evidently an enterprising Tibetan who opened this hotel after finding his guesthouse within the city walls quite successful. So it's brand new with only 13 guestrooms, complete with hand-carved Tibetan furniture and painted walls - altogether a very authentic feeling site. We enjoyed our choice of accommodation thoroughly, including the yak goulash and Jim's No. 1 (a whiskey-based drink that's composed of visible stalks of herbs, rock sugar, and God-only-knows what else).

Dali and the surrounding area has plenty to offer in the way of great scenery, clear mountain air, delicious Yunnan coffee and banana pancakes. On our first afternoon in town, Emma and I sat down outside a cafe to enjoy the aforementioned qualities of Dali and were approached by no less than 3 or 4 old toothless Tibetan ladies proffering their handmade wares (embroidery, shoe insoles, etc.), all of which we turned down, at which point they would look around shiftily and then lean in and say "You wanna smoke?" Honestly, lady, what do we look like to you? Twenty-something backpackers?? Psh.

Among the attractions we took in during our short stay in Dali were the 3 Pagodas and Sha-ping Market (say that one out loud - it's punderful), which boasted everything from beautiful antiques to "beautiful antiques", spices, clothes, food, recently butchered livestock, and a roadside dentist displaying a decent selection of the "teeth" he would replace the problematic ones with. Emma and I didn't buy much of anything, but were happily taking it all in when one of the merchants plowed past us holding several chickens by the feet in each hand, basically colliding with Emma, much to our horror. They didn't mention that bird flu came free with a visit to the market.

Apart from that encounter, we enjoyed our time in Dali very much, and though the weather was fairly pleasant, you can see how it would be really spectacular there in the spring. We headed back to Kunming after 2 days to catch our train to Guilin. We had a couple of hours to kill first, though, so we went in search of a good meal before the long ride east. Well, a meal we found, but good it was not. Of course, I thought I was being a dutiful tourist by sampling the "across-the-bridge noodles," which is apparently one of Yunnan's local cuisines, and it tasted fine enough at the time, though 12 hours later it was distinctly less pleasant as it came back out of my mouth in the foul train lavatory amid excrement sloshing around the floor. Mama Fufu is definitely on my shit list.