I saw a shooting star the other night!!!

For anybody who doesn’t understand why this is so exciting, take into account the following: the air quality in Beijing is usually pretty terrible. I can judge the air quality by looking out my window in the morning–if I can see a clear, crisp outline of Xishan (西山, West Mountain) then I know that the air quality is really good, which has happened about a third of the time that I’ve been here. About a third of the time I can see a vague outline–IE, it looks like a cloud on the horizon. About a third of the time I can’t see it at all. There have been some days when I can’t see down the street more than a few blocks. (Most of the Chinese have just gotten used to it, and some government even refer to it as “fog” and ignore the problem since they can’t do much about it without slowing down production and upsetting all those who can afford cars here, which is the majority of the upper class and upper middle class citizens.) So due to such problems with air quality, as well as the light quality from being in a city of over twenty million people, being able to see ANYTHING in the sky is something that I find incredibly amazing.

This is the view outside my window, on a clear day! :)

But lately, I have been blessed enough to have the chance to see the stars! I was coming home from dancing with Nina and Ruanmingzhuang the other night and ended up coming in rather late–and, lo and behold, I glanced up at the sky and had to stop in shock. I could see Orion’s Belt. I could see stars, spangling the sky–it was late enough that most lights in the city were out, and the air quality was good enough that I got a clear view of the sky. It was one of my favorite moments in the past few weeks, not because I don’t like the other things I’ve been doing but because I was amazed that I was able to see a bit of the sky that I grew up with. Stargazing is something I try to do often with my other half, and so it of course reminded me of him.

Seeing the shooting star was like that–I was actually in a car when I saw it the other night on December 14th, just shooting across the horizon line of the city and burning out in just a few seconds. It was something I rarely see even at home in New Hampshire, and so I was just shocked beyond belief that I had witnissed something like that in Beijing! I had to look it up in my dictionary to explain to my Shushu, Host Father, why I was so excited–and when I did, he just sort of did the Chinese equivalent of “Really? Wow, that’s cool.” And then he went back to his life and has probably already forgotten about it…. But for me, it was a heart-warming but also nostalgic moment, because it just reminded me of how much beauty there is to see in the world.

(In case you’re curious, I was probably lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of the Geminids,  a meteor shower which occurred in the following days–however, it was still very lucky given all the pollution, light pollution, and the fact that it’s supposed to be most visible in Europe!)

So anyway, that is one of my happier moments of the past week. :) I have also quite enjoyed ice skating! I have loved ice skating ever since I first started learning, and now that I can skate without falling down overly much I enjoy it even more. So it should come as no surprise that as the weather gets colder and winter rolls in, I start feeling the desire to go again. This time, however, I actually had people who wanted to go with me! So after some stringent searching, Nina and Trang and I located an ice skating rink in Xidan (西单), which is one of Beijing shopping capitals. The ice rink is on the third underground level and is rather small, but that was probably for the better, since Trang had only ever gone once before! It was a ton of fun to go with them–and since Trang hadn’t gone before, I ended up skating near her quite a lot so that we could chat and that I could help her figure out how to navigate the ice. I am not much good at skating backwards, but I noticed definite improvement over the course of the day, so I have high hopes for continuous improvement if I go on a semi-regular basis.

From left to right, Trang, Me, and Nina!

As for what I’ve been up to lately–obviously I have not always been very good at updating the blog with what I’ve been up to. There were numerous trips around the city, one to Prince Gong’s Mansion, one to Beihai Park, one to the National Art Museum, one to the Temple of Heaven and one to the Forbidden City, among others–I’m hoping to try and cover these in separate entries for you so you can enjoy lots of pretty pictures. :) But I’m going to include the most recent little trip that I’ve had here for you, and it was to the CCTV Tower!

This is the Tower from a bit close-up.

Mainland China has one large corporation that controls a significant portion of what goes on television here–known as China Central Television, or CCTV in usual speak, it is the official mouthpiece of the government when it comes to reporting news and such.Most programs on TV here in China, as far as I understand, are put on by CCTV. Also, they have a large tower in most cities here, as far as I can figure out– Similar to the tower in Toronto, it’s located so high that you can see a significant portion of the city from its heights. In Beijing, of course, this is only true on the days where the air quality is good–the day we went was not one of these, but it was worth the trip, both to see a bit of the history through their photo displays and also from the views at the height of the tower.

You can see the smog here… XD

They also had these really neat plaques all over the place, listing famous places from all over the world and their distance from the CCTV tower in Beijing. I was very pleased to note that I had been to at least thirteen or fifteen of them! Most of them were in America, since I’ve only been to three other countries, but it was still nice! I felt accomplished.

One of the plaques. :)

So these were my adventures in Beijing! I’ll try to update my blog, but unfortunately the rates for internet usage at our hotel here in Shanghai are ridiculous, over $15 a day, so I’ll probably be updating again when I get back to Beijing…. In the meantime, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and have a wonderful New Years!

Love,

Courtney

One of the interesting things I found about my host family is that they enjoy drinking wine (葡萄酒)–now, this may not sound all that odd, but drinking culture in China is largely centered around two types of alcohol: Beer (啤酒) and Bai Jiu (白酒). Pretty much whenever you go out to dinner in Beijing you will see guys drinking 啤酒, and it only comes in two types: Tsingtao Beer and Yanjing Beer, both of which have reasonably low alcohol content and are usually cheaper than water. Whenever we go out to dinner with our group of students, bottles of 啤酒 are pretty much ubiquitously placed in front of the guys. (Us girls sometimes get a glass of 啤酒 too, but China is still a little bit conservative in the sense that where guys are assumed to always want something alcoholic with food, girls are pretty much expected *not* to want to drink alcohol and must ask for it.)

Alcohol, like tea, is often nicely packaged here, as seen above. By the way, "白酒“ is often mistranslated as white wine rather than white liquor. If you ever come to China and are asked if you would like white wine, you should probably check whether they mean white wine or Bai Jiu.

Bai Jiu (白酒), on the other hand, is made from sorghum and ranges from reasonably cheap to ridiculously expensive and is usually approximately 56% alcohol. The one time I tried it was at our program director’s house, when she taught us all how to make 饺子 (jiaozi, dumplings) and insisted that everybody try some. I told her to give me a little bit, placing my fingers about a quarter of an inch apart–she proceeded to pour me half a glass and wander off to trick the next innocent victim into drinking some. Now, for those of you who live in America and have never been faced with this particular liquor, I would like to relate to you the following experience: I lifted the cup to my lips and naively took a sip without bothering to smell it first. Big mistake. It took a second for my sense of taste to register, but I swallowed as fast as I could because 白酒 tastes like rubbing alcohol. If I had bothered to smell it before taking a sip, I would have known this. Due to the high alcohol percentage, I could pretty much feel the warmth spreading out from that one sip. I took two more sips throughout the next half hour to see if my impression changed, and when it did not I resolved to avoid 白酒 at all costs in the future and gave it to one of my classmates who didn’t mind the flavor as much.

That experience has largely kept me from trying too much else while I’m here, despite the fact that it is perfectly legal for me to enjoy a glass of wine (葡萄酒) while I’m here because China has no drinking age. However, I found out shortly after that that my host family enjoys 葡萄酒–which as I said, is rare, because most people here drink 啤酒 or 白酒 or nothing. So despite my general aversion to the flavour of alcohol, I’ve had the chance to try a number of different wines while here and have realized that I actually do like some of them. I am rather looking forward to the fact that next year, I will be 21 and thus have the legal right to order a glass of wine when going out to a nice dinner. I feel as though it will be great fun when I am (hopefully) in an apartment senior year to occasionally make Italian or Chinese food  for dinner, put on some  Gershwin, open a bottle of White Zinfandel and have grand philosophical chats with my friends and roommates as the stars come out. :)

In the meantime, I was lucky enough to have my father bring a few bottles of nice wines as presents for my host family, one of which has already been opened and shared over a wonderful evening meal of latkes and Vietnamese food.

This is my friend Trang, who was largely responsible for making the Vietnamese meat dish to go with our delicious-but-starchy latkes. :)

This came about because my very good friend and erstwhile Beijing exploring companion Nina is Jewish, and so naturally at the start of Hanukkah she wanted to enjoy the traditional latkes made by many American Jewish families and also share the story of Hanukkah with my Chinese family, who have sort of adopted her as another American daughter because her host mother is nice but very busy. Another close friend on this trip, Trang, is Vietnamese and wanted to tag along and enjoy the experience as well, and so she kindly volunteered her cooking expertise to prepare something with meat while Nina and I made the latkes! It was great fun! We enjoyed a crazy mad trip to the grocery store in search of graters and sour cream, had fun listening and singing along to some pretty awesome Shakira music while grating the potatoes and starting to cook them, and also explaining (in Chinese) the story of Hanukkah. Just an FYI: latkes can in fact be fried in peanut oil and they still taste wonderful. :)

As you can see, there were LOTS of potatoes involved. Nina and I grated them, this year without any mishaps with injuring ourselves with the graters or peelers, as occurred last year in Longsdorff.

Now, for what some of you are probably waiting to hear about: Death by Lindy Hop! On Friday, Nina was almost lindy-hopped upon, which was one of the things that inspired this particular post. A couple of Fridays ago, I went with some friends to CD Blues, which is a very nice jazz and blues cafe/bar/club on the other side of the city. We were originally planning on spending only a couple of hours there while we waited for Trang, who was at a friend’s birthday party–however, after grabbing some seats, ordering some wine and settling in, we realized what a wonderful place it was. They had a live band there that evening, and as it got later and the band members began tuning up, we realized that the music was going to be a treat worth staying for–and so we did! They played everything ranging from the Sing-Sing to funk music, and they played all of it wonderfully.

However, even better than the music alone was the fact that there were swing dance performances from members of Swing Beijing, an organization which offers classes on Monday and Thursday nights. (I have since gone to a few of the open swing nights, and will post about them another time!) The dancers were all incredible–and at one point, during a break, Nina and I gave Shaun an example of basic swing dancing. She’s a good lead and I’m a bad follow, but I think he got the idea after watching us for a few minutes because he’s a pretty good dancer. (He was actually brave enough to go out and be the only one dancing when they were playing some more funk-ish music, and it was rather impressive. Nina joined him–and I would simply like to say, anyone who was brave enough to dance was deservedly cheered on!)

Anyway, the evening made me realize how much I have just missed music in general–I used to sing all the time when I was at home in high school because there wasn’t anyone else around to bother, since they were all at work/after school activities/hooked up to a computer or in another part of the house and couldn’t hear me. Then when I got to college, I had a roommate and was surrounded by people who wanted to study, and the singing pretty much stopped; here in Beijing, it’s the same story with thin apartment walls. As far as singing goes here, I am limited to karaoke/KTV experiences with my friends and the occasional bit of a song I feel comfortable humming when my host family isn’t home. I don’t even have church songs to keep my voice up here because I feel uncomfortable going to a church with thousands of people in it, since that eliminates a great deal of the personal connections and ways to share faith that inspire me to go to church in the first place. So having the chance to spend an evening chatting with friends, listening to music, and watching some amazing dancers was both enjoyable and made me realize one of the things I’ve really missed this past year.

Lastly, I have a new jacket.

This was taken at the art museum, so the focus is more on the art than on me, but I think you get the idea!

This may sound like a complete non sequitur, but it is in fact important to note due to the assumptions people in Beijing make about me now that I have this jacket. It has become a joke among my many friends here that it has made me look like a Russian due to its style and the fact that the lining is actual fur–even my friend Olga, who is from Russia, joked that I could be mistaken for a Russian if my not so Russian muddy-blonde hair was tucked up. (She, by the way, has an almost identical *black* jacket brought from Russia.) This joke became true last week–while I was visiting a shopping center that I am pretty sure is almost twice as large as the Mall of America (and a heck of a lot cheaper), I was holding my jacket and looking at skirts when one of the sellers came over and tried to say something to me. I didn’t understand him–at first I assumed that it was because he had a strong non-Beijing accent, and so I simply apologized and said “对不起, 我听不懂.” (“Tingbudong”, which means I don’t understand you). My host mother had a big grin on her face and then pointed out to him  in Chinese that I was not Russian. He gestured at my jacket and shrugged. It was a brief moment in my shopping experience there, but an interesting onee.

That’s really it for now!

P.S. In case Ms. Dynan is reading this, I believe Kevin beat me to sending you some pictures, but if you would like to see one where I think he is particularly fetching, look no further than this picture of him at Trang’s birthday party:

In case anyone is curious, the peace sign that Kevin is making is pretty much universally made for any pictures by most Chinese women. It's not just the young ones, but also the older ones-the mother of a boy that I tutor every week makes it a lot whenever we take pictures together, which has happened more than once.

The crown was provided with the birthday cakes; I find that in China, the companies tend to assume that you’re going out to eat the cake because most people in Beijing don’t have a living/dining room large enough to host a big party, so they always provide utensils, plates, candles, and a birthday crown to take with you to a restaurant or other dining area.

Anyway, this is all for now–but I will be trying to update and catch people up on things that have been happening before I come home. ;)

Courtney

…is really nice. This has happened to me on more than one occasion here. For example, I met one of my language partners because he came over with a note addressed to “The Western Beauty,” and simply proceeded to say that he was wondering if I was interested in tutoring someone in English and getting tutored in Chinese. Another time, I was on the subway with Nina. She was sitting next to a couple of more elderly gentlemen, who rather shortly after got up to leave. On the way past, one of them commented quietly, “My friend thinks that you’re very beautiful” to both Nina and I. It was simply a compliment given as they left, and neither gave us a second glance after it had been said. I am mentioning this only because I think that it shows an interesting aspect of Chinese culture: They have a reasonably open culture when it comes to commenting on the appearance of other people. I usually experience this in the positive aspect, where people comment that my hair is beautiful or ask about whether or not it’s dyed, and then comment on how amazing it is that it’s natural blonde and is so long. Even when it’s a guy who says something, it is not usually meant as an “I find you attractive and want to hit on you” sort of a comment–in fact, of the three or so times that I’ve been hit on here, half or more were by other foreigners. The traditional Chinese perspective is that body type and appearance are things that one ought to be frank about.

However, this goes both ways: I was showing pictures of my American family and friends to my extended Chinese host family today, and my host aunt commented “Ah- you were fat! You’re so much thinner now!” in response to one of the pictures from last year. Admittedly, it was one where I was wearing a fashion corset, which meant that any body fat was clear–but the point is that unlike in the States where it’s incredibly rude, saying that somebody is fat here is not meant as an insult, but rather as a sort of comment. I think it’s due to the fact that traditionally, people here live in a very communal way and feel comfortable commenting on other people. I have seen this in other situations as well–in particular, one where our teacher, Gao, was with us at Tian’anmen Square (). We were standing around waiting for a military show to go on when he started commenting on how some of us were fat and some of us were not, and how some of us were fatter/skinnier than we were last year at Dickinson, and then who should be skinnier/fatter. It was not meant as an insulting comparisons but rather as a simple statement of the truth, and the entire speech was generally very cheerfully given–he didn’t seem to notice that one of the girls was slightly  miffed that he called her fat. This sort of speech is normal–usually from older people, or what we call “老北京人”, or “Old Beijing” people. Now the younger people have begun to pick up Western habits and generally avoid commenting on weight, women’s weight in particular.

However, I would also like to say something here, and this is regarding one of the things that I hate most about Beijing, excepting the air quality and lack of Western toilets:

STOP WATCHING ME.

Yes, that’s right, people on the subway in the morning–stop it. I’m talking to you. The one thing that I only ran into a little bit the first time I came to China was how much attention people give you simply for being white, blonde, and having blue eyes. Now, having lived here for almost three and a half months, I can honestly say that the fascination with white people is one of the more frustrating aspects of my life here.

In 2006, I got asked for photos with a family at the Great Wall, but that was pretty much an isolated incident. Here, this has happened more than ten times. In fact, there was on occasion when I went to Xiangshan with Nina where this big group of people wanted pictures with me and Nina–and not only did they want a group picture, but they then proceeded to basically form a line and come get individual pictures, some with Nina and some with me. Nina surreptitiously took a picture of this happening, so you can see what I mean:

Yep. At tourist sites, this is frequently what happens when I am stopping to take a break from climbing or to take a picture.

And that’s just at the tourist places. I have lived on the same street here for those three and a half months, and so I have walked the same streets at the same times on a weekly basis. Despite this, I still get stared at by people as I walk down my street to go to classes or come home. When I arrive at the station and get on the escalator to go underground, people on the escalator coming up stare at me. When I am riding on the train, looking at the videos that play on a loop, I can see people out of the corner of my eye, staring at me. As I walk through the malls or the vendors, I have seen people’s heads turn to watch me as I go by. Something like that was flattering the first or second time it occurred, but now I can honestly not explain to you how frustrating it is to look back at people, only to have them look away as though they weren’t just caught staring, and then start doing it again as my gaze goes somewhere else. I mean, come on–I live in Beijing. There are over a hundred thousand expats living in the city, and countless hundreds of thousands of Westerners come every year as tourists. So it’s not like these people have never seen a Westerner before, because we’re all over the place.

So I would simply like to enumerate this fact: I am not a zoo animal. I DO notice when people here watch me like I am one, and I DO get irritated by it.

This particular annoyance has been on my mind for some time, and so I figured I would let it out here for all of those who like hearing about the different aspects of my living in Beijing. Maybe it’s not very interesting, but it’s an aspect that anybody who’s going to be here next year should be prepared for, because I’m pretty sure it’s not going to go away any time soon.

Since the weather has becoming colder and colder, I decided that it was high time I took some photographs around the campus of Beida to share with all of you back home. When I first arrived in China, I was absolutely overwhelmed by the size of the Beida campus–not even counting the graduate student dormitories, the teachers’ housing, or the international student dormitory areas, the campus must be at least four or five times the size of Dickinson, and the number of different buildings is enough to confuse anybody. However, as I began to explore, I found that it wasn’t actually as confusing as I thought–and, in addition, that I absolutely love the campus architecture.

The buildings range from modern marble constructions resembling Western architecture such as the 100 Year Hall, which is used as a movie theater and art performance center, to buildings like the ones in the following picture, which maintain the traditional Chinese bright colors, intricate painting designs, and neat tiered roofs. It’s a really neat contrast that both acknowledges the history of the campus and the traditions of China but also acknowledges the changes that have occurred in the past century and continue today.

This is the Russian Building, where I have my Chinese grammar class.

There is one building in particular which blends the two nicely, and that is Peking University’s library. It’s actually a big tourist attraction–sort of like how in America people visiting Boston will sometimes stop by Harvard or MIT to say that they’ve seen it, we get a lot of tourists at Beida. However, because of Beida’s fame, there are (I think) a lot more tourists. There are less now that it’s colder, but I would estimate that just about every day I see at least one group of tourists standing in front of the library taking pictures as I walk from class to class. Anyway, here’s a small panorama of the side of the library–you can see how it is definitely a more modern design, but it still maintains some distinctly Asian characteristics. (Note: The panorama is crooked because I don’t have an easy way to straighten it without losing the panoramic content, which is the point. Sorry if you have to turn your head a bit to the side to see it, but hopefully you’ll survive.;) )

Now, one of my favorite sections on campus is called 未名湖,Wèimíng Hú, which literally translates to “No Name Lake” or “Nameless Lake.” Peking University is famous for being not only the oldest modern university in China and one of China’s top two universities, but also for having gorgeous scenery. 未名湖 is like a smaller version of the lakes that you find at places like Yuanmingyuan or Yiheyuan, which are famous for being gorgeous. Since the leaves are starting to fall, I figured that I ought to try and get some pictures to you before that beauty fades slightly for winter. Willow trees are very prominent–and I learned by spending some time near the lake this fall that willow leaves also change color! :)

Here's the path that follows the edge of the lake–it's beautiful to go to during the few hours I have in between classes, and when the weather was warmer I often came over to the lake to study.

So there you have a brief overview of the school’s campus! Now, I’m sure that you’re wondering why on earth I mentioned panda bears–I mentioned panda bears because I have recently acquired a very wonderful piece of panda-bear wear. In China, you can find pretty much any piece of clothing that has a panda bear on it. I’ve seen shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, jackets, purses, headbands, shoes, and even gloves with pandas. The other day when I was at the mall, I found this very adorable item and decided that I had to pick it up. I’ve seen lots of different variations on panda bear hats, but I thought this one was just adorable! So here you have a picture of me modeling the hat at 未名湖!

Yes, that hat IS a panda bear. I'm pretty sure that I should bring a whole bunch of these back for my friends at home… although I should probably mention that my boyfriend thinks it will be embarrassing to walk around campus with me when I wear it. So maybe I shouldn't.

And lastly, while I was helping teach an English class on Wednesday night, we had a very fun time with the Chinese students playing hangman–and then Shaun Lawson (whose blog is here, and you should check it out for another perspective on China!) made the comment that inspired the following sketch: “You know, Hangman in Chinese would be really hard.” And you know what? He’s absolutely right! Because Chinese has so many different radicals, it would take FOREVER to figure out what word someone was thinking of. It might work if you did entire sentences, which are more likely to have a lot of different radicals, but still…. Anyway, that thought has simply fascinated me ever since, and I found it such an entertaining idea that I decided to make a sketch note about it to share with y’all.

For those of you who are interested, each of those little characters on the blackboard in the hangman drawing is what we call a radical. While they can be a word on their own, they more usually are found as part of another word, sometimes becoming extremely complicated like the following examples: 葡萄秘嚷

So that’s it for now! I’ve been busy this past week trying to prepare for exams, and I will be busy next week both because I have exams and because my father will be in Beijing to visit me! :) So I’ll see what I can do about updating with some of the other stuff I’ve been up to, but it may not come again for a bit. Hope that all’s well with those of you adventuring elsewhere in the world or enjoying life at home! <3

So I figured that I would try and update this with some of the things I’ve done since I came back to Beijing! Soon after arriving home, I decided to catch up with Ruan Mingzhuang and Nina, two of my Dickinson classmates and good friends who had gone to Shanxi Province. So we decided to meet up at Yuanmingyuan, which is very pretty and also very close to Beida. (It’s only three subway-stops from my house, so it’s pretty convenient to get to.) This is actually the site of the old Summer Palace—you saw some earlier pictures from my visit to the more recent version.

The reason that there are two “summer palaces” is because in 1860, during the Second Opium War, France and Britain destroyed almost the entirety of Yuanmingyuan. For those of you who don’t know much about non-American history, here’s a basic rundown of what happened:

In Europe and America, imperialism (read cultural/military invasion of other countries for the benefit of the invading country) was rampant in the West. China, largely due to Imperial China’s lack of centralized military strength and a business class, lacked enough power to keep European powers from carving out spheres of influence in China. At this time, England was heavily invested in the opium trade, and so when they realized that opium was actually bad for their people to get addicted to, they decided to find a different market for it.

This is where China came into the picture—China had lots of things that the West wanted (IE, silk, cloisonné, cheap labor, etcetera), but the West didn’t have much that the Chinese were interested in at the time. However, opium was their key into China’s market. When the Chinese government realized what a problem opium was, they began to suppress it, which caused Britain great distress. As a result, in 1840 Britain found a technicality over which to go to war and invaded China so that they could sell drugs there and benefit economically. Fast forward about twenty years and you’re in the middle of the Taiping Rebellion, which was where a misguided individual decided after reading some Western pamphlets that he was the second son of God and was supposed to rebel against China. Lots of people decided to follow him, and a thirteen-year civil war ensued, resulting in the deaths of about 25 million people. It was at this time that the Western Powers decided that they needed more liberty in China’s economics, and thus came the second opium war.

Anyway, relevant to the summer palace, in retaliation for the torture of some of their European emissaries, Britain and France decided it was a good idea to burn Yuanmingyuan. They did so after looting only a small portion of the collection of antiques, calligraphy, paintings, and other treasures that were stored within, and the palace is still considered a sign of Western aggression and terrorism in China today.

However, despite its rather infamous history, Yuanmingyuan is now one of the prettier parks in Beijing—similar to Yiheyuan, it is surrounded by willow trees, lotuses, and is generally beautiful. There are traditional Chinese bridges all over the park, and occasionally you’ll see remnants of the old buildings.

We got there just before twilight, and after catching up on our journey adventures, we then found a nice place to sit and eat dinner while enjoying the views.

We didn’t get to see everything, but I thought that it was pretty enough and had enough historical significance to merit a post. :) I hope you like the pictures!

Here’s the final section of my trip to Xi’an! After this, updates should come every week on interesting things that have happened…. maybe I’ll actually catch up to the present! ;)

October 4th, 2010: Third Day in Xi’an

The day started with a bang—or, more precisely, with the ring of my cell phone and the directions to be downstairs at 7:30, which was a nice change from the 5:30 wake ups we had the past few days. And so Olga and I checked out and, after relishing being able to see go outside after the sun came up, boarded the bus and started the long process of waiting, first for our Korean friends and then as the bus went from hotel to hotel picking up the others that were in our group for the day.

For the first time, we weren’t the only foreigners in the group! Olga was exceedingly happy because there were two Russian girls, Masha and Sasha, who were both from her hometown of Moscow. Across the city we went, stopping for an unfortunately short thirty minutes at the Wild Goose Pagoda, also called the Dà Yàn Tǎ, 大雁塔。 For those of you who have heard of the 大雁塔 before, it’s known as one of the better preserved ancient Buddhist pagodas in China. It’s also famous because its founder, Xuanzang, is the inspiration for the famous novel Journey to the West. (It’s one of the four great classics of Chinese literature and is actually a really fun story—I have read an English translation before, but I’ve picked up a Chinese children’s version that’s going to be my reading project next semester when I return home! For those of you who haven’t read Chinese classics, you may have seen its influence on Asian culture via the Dragonball Z series, which was rather popular in America.)

Here's the statue of Xuanzang, the man who inspired the character Tripitaka in "Journey to the West."

This picture is actually from 2006, but you get a neat angle of the tower and it's closer than I got this time…

Thirty minutes isn’t really enough time to see 大雁塔, let alone see what’s inside it, and so we ended up wandering around the squares nearby rather than entering. We wandered down one of the side streets, and took a brief look at the touristy shops alongside. (I didn’t buy anything, mostly because if I’m going to buy souvenirs, I’m not doing it where I see more foreigners than Chinese.) However, while wandering out in front, we did catch part of the hourly water-show that happens in a nearby square! I also located a neat area where there are stepping stones in front of the fountain show, so you can actually go out into the water area. I hadn’t seen that the first time I was in 西安!

Our next trip was to the city wall—another place I’ve been to before, on my 2006 trip! We were only given forty minutes, which wasn’t really enough time to rent a bike and travel around the top of the wall, which I did the first time I came here. If anybody else goes to 西安, I would really recommend trying to do that; it gives you a really wonderful insight into what the city is like away from the touristy areas. The architecture along here is really neat, because a lot of it is preserved from classical Chinese times. The Xi’an City Wall is one of the best preserved in the world. Here are some pictures! Just for comparison’s sake, I’m including some from my 2006 trip!

Left to Right; Myself, LeēXiánGěng, Jīnsùyīng, Chēshùxián, and Olga.

One of the towers on the City Wall entrance.

This is from my 2006 trip to the wall–we had enough time to bike around the wall, so my friend Kerry and I had an adventure with one of the tandem bikes!

After that, we were taken to the train station and given our tickets before being dropped off in the Muslim section of the city and told to go find some food and be at the station in time to leave. (BTW, the “Muslim section” is a historically Muslim section. They don’t segregate people in China based on religion or ethnicity. Just wanted to clarify that.) The Korean girls had a very handy travel map, and led us along a different path to go visit a famous Jiaozi Restaurant. Jiaozi are basically Chinese dumplings, and they’re one of the foods that Xi’an is really well known for.

Lucky for us, not only were we able to find the restaurant, but it happened to be in the same central square as the Bell and Drum Towers, which I had visited in 2006! The jiaozi were really delicious, and after eating lunch, Olga, Masha, Sasha and I went outside and found an outdoor café area to enjoy taking in the sites. I decided to try the place’s ice cream and see what it was like, and I was deliciously surprised! For six kuai (a little less than a dollar), I got three scoops of ice cream: brown, green, and purple… Unsurprisingly, brown was chocolate—but it was the green and purple that really made me realize that Chinese ice cream is delicious and I like it better than lots of European and American ice creams. The green was cantaloupe flavored, and it really maintained that sweet-but-not-too-sweet flavor…. and the purple was Taro flavored! Mm. I will have to see if I can find a Chinese ice cream shop in Beijing… although now it’s getting cold, so I may have no desire to eat ice cream. (Note: This is not as frivolous as it sounds. All the other ice cream stores that I’ve seen here so far are Dairy Queen, Haagen-Daazs, and Coldstone Creamery. No kidding. It’s not just a whim; I actually want to try and find out if there are real Chinese ice cream stores in Beijing.)

After relaxing with the ice cream, Olga and I decided to have an adventure, and we made our way over to the Bell Tower. For those who don’t know about the Bell and Drum Towers, they were originally used for music and then as timekeeping—anywhere in the city, you would be able to hear the bells and drums ringing out the hours. Now, of course, they’re mainly tourist attractions and beautiful reminders of China’s classical architecture. Olga and I arrived just in time to see a musical performance done at the Bell Tower, which was fun! I recognized a few of the songs—one was classical Chinese music, and then there were a few Western classical pieces, probably played to prove that the bells are versatile instruments. Afterwards, we went upstairs to get some nice views of the Drum Tower and surrounding city before hurrying back to our Russian friends.

The Bell Tower–it's conveniently located in the center of an intersection, which makes it rather easy to get a clear photo.

In the background is the Drum Tower Square–it's a nice blend of the old and the new, with the Drum Tower and some neat old shops located in the heart of Xi'an's shopping district.

As true backpacking students will do, we opted to take the public bus system rather than hail a taxi, because the bus systems in China operate on the basis of one kuai per ride on a bus. (That’s about 15 cents, in case anybody was curious.) I was feeling very accomplished after this because we not only rode a bus in a foreign city, but had no trouble identifying which bus we wanted by using the Chinese-only bus boards and were the only foreigners to do so. After that, it was simply waiting…

The ride back to Beijing was fun—we were in the same compartment as a family with a young son. They came on smiling and carrying a bag of KFC. (Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken is what I’m referring to. It’s strangely popular here.) So of course, I asked the mother if they liked American food, and we ended up chatting on and off with her and her son, Michael, for most of the evening. They were very friendly, very helpful, and Michael was especially endearing! He came over to see what I was writing when I was working on my travel journal and exclaimed, “Wow, you wrote a lot!” and looked extremely impressed. Small children are adorable.

So, that’s pretty much everything that happened in Xi’an! I’ll be trying to update soon with more recent things, such as our trip to the Ethnic Museum and the Forbidden City.

For now, Zàijiàn!  (Goodbye!)(再见!)

Hello everybody—as the title says, this is the second part of my trip to Xī’ān (西安). I would like to apologize for the long interim between updates, but we’ve had midterms this week, so I’ve been busy. I tried to update the blog a few days ago—and then it proceeded to delete any record that the entry ever existed overnight, except in my browsing history. So here’s try two! This covers our trip to Huà Shān, 华山, which is about two hours away from Xī’ān.

October 3rd, 2010

The day started obscenely early, as we met our Korean friends and the tour guide at 5:30—however, luckily enough we were able to sleep for a great deal of the two hour ride to 华山. I was able to doze as the sky lightened, but after we had passed the city limits I enjoyed looking at the scenery. And then, suddenly, there were mountains.

Mountains in China are not the same as mountains in America. For example, beyond the obvious difference of continent, mountains in America tend to be surrounded by foothills of some sort. Not so in China. Northern China tends to be very flat, and this is true until the flat runs into a mountain. There doesn’t seem to be much in between plains and mountains, which makes for some interesting scenery. We arrived at about seven, and we were just looking around, happy to have beat the tourist groups, when we realized that we were not by any means in the first group of people to get there.

The tour guide went to go and buy ticket, advising us to eat lunch now before we started our trip up the mountain. The food was delicious, and all for a mere twenty kuai. (Which, by American standards, is ridiculously cheap, since it’s only about three dollars. However, for China, that’s overpriced! If you go to a small restaurant on the side of the street, you can usually eat for ten kuai or less.) And then the epic wait! First we went as a tour group and got in line, which we shortly thereafter found out was not a line to get to the hike, but rather a line to get to the buses which take you up the mountain to the hike’s starting point.

Since I already explained all about the waiting that inevitably occurs if you travel during National Holiday Week, I’m not going to go over it in detail again. However, I DID take a picture of one of the lines that we had to wait in so that you could see what it was like!

Only in China will people wait five hours to get to the top of a mountain…

That particular picture is of the line for the cable car, and I would like to use this picture to illustrate a point. These lines were not forming for an amusement park. They were not forming in front of a store for the newest iPod or the latest Xbox. These people came from all over the country (and world!) to climb a mountain. I wish that people in America had as much interest in national parks as people do in China—because while I wouldn’t like the lines, honestly, it would say something nice about the people in our country.

Our trip to 华山 was actually one of my favorite experiences so far in China, despite all the waiting we did in line. While we were riding in the bus and then on the cable car, I realized something about myself.

Growing up in New Hampshire, I was always surrounded by woods. I could go through our backyard into the forest and lose myself in a world where you couldn’t see anything beyond the woods and the sky. When I started going to Dickinson two years ago, I realized that I missed the quiet. I have felt bereft of that since I came to Beijing—and this is not to say that I don’t like it here! Beijing is a wonderful city, and there have been so many wonderful experiences here. I love being in Beijing, and while I wouldn’t want to live here forever, it’s made me realize that at least part of me is a city person. Beijing especially is full of some of the friendliest people I have ever known–when I’ve asked for directions, people never hesitate to try and help me get where I’m going. I’ve had the chance to practice my Chinese  with people who have simply smiled at me and said “Hello” on the street—and when I respond in Chinese, they’re excited to meet someone who’s studying their language and are always interested in why I’m in China and what I’ve been able to see here.

But it’s still a city. While there are flickers of beauty in the glass and steel, something is missing. To me, that something is God—when you look at nature, it is easy to sense God’s presence in the swell of the sunset behind trees or the mountains rising above our heads. The human brain on its own, without inspiration, wouldn’t have come up with such an idea—our hands could never mold nature on such a scale and into something of such beauty. We are in awe because of the sheer impossibility of it all—and this was what I saw at Huashan. Looking at this scene, I wanted to simply stop and stare at the beauty—it was as if every tree, each fractured rock, each ray of light and each shadow were all placed just so. The whole scene was one of breathtaking simplicity that we could never recreate perfectly because of its endless complexity. This is what I miss when I’m in a city; I miss that constant reminder that the mind behind the creation of our world created beauty in our lives. Beauty is not everything, and while nature is beautiful, it is not safe—but it is still a gift. Cities are not really places to love, they are simply places to live. My soul is not inspired by the glassy spires as it is by the sight of God’s hand on the world in the carved mountains or the tangled forests that I grew up with, and that is what I desperately miss in Beijing.

I missed Stuart a lot in that moment—I knew that if we were driving together and saw this, we would have stopped to enjoy the scenery. We would have stopped the car and gone out to simply enjoy the gift of this world—we could have done a photo shoot, framing our shots carefully and trying to capture the uncapturable to share with others. And we could have shared that moment of love and peace. But he wasn’t there, and I was on a tour bus, so the pictures that I have will have to do.

We reached the end of the bus ride and I was in a very peaceful state of mind until I saw that we had yet more lines to wait in, this time for the cable car.

A Brief Introduction to Cable Cars

The only mountain I have seen so far is 华山—now, for those of you who are not familiar with Chinese mountains, 华山 is extremely well known because it is one of the five sacred mountains of Daoism. Because of its history, there are a number of historical temples and over the ages, many people have made pilgrimages there. Although most Chinese are now non-religious, these mountains are still such attractions that many parks have built cable cars to help people get up the mountain. You see, many of these mountains are extremely difficult to hike up—particularly Hua Shan, which is regarded as one of the steepest mountains in China and honored with the title of “The Most Precipitous Mountain Under Heaven.” (Or something else very similar. It depends how you translate it, but either way, it’s ridiculously steep.)

For the elderly, very young, physically disabled, or just plain lazy, they have installed cable cars that both give people an aerial view of the scenery on the way to the top and/or the way down and also cut the journey down to about five minutes, versus the two plus hours that it would take to hike up or down. In this particular case, we were warned that unless you’re in really great condition, you shouldn’t even try to hike up and down the mountain because you just won’t be able to make it both ways. Because yours truly and her companions did not consider themselves to be in super amazing hiking shape, we took the cable car up. Here’s a picture so you can see what it was like:

Here's the cable car! It was a lot of fun to ride in!

We reached the top after a five minute ride of gorgeous scenery and found ourselves still needing to push through people because of how many people were on top of the mountain. After talking, we came to the sad conclusion that, having spent so much time in line, we would need to start descending the mountain before we really had the chance to see anything. And, given that the line for taking the cableway back down was well over three hours wait, we decided to have an adventure and climb down the mountain. It would still take a few hours, but we would be able to see something.

And see things we did! The first was a wonderful surprise of a group of middle-aged Westerners making a beeline for us as soon as they saw that Olga and I were not in fact Chinese but were speaking the language. It turned out that they were trying to decide how to get down but didn’t know any Chinese, so we were able to help them come to the same decision that we did when they heard the waiting time.

And the second thing was the climb down—for climb it was. Hua Shan is extremely steep—in fact, when I mentioned that we would be going to Hua Shan to my host father, he had actually looked surprised and commented that it was “dangerous.” Now, I believe he’s referring to certain trails that we didn’t go on at the top, and to the time before it was renovated—but it was probably the hardest hike I have ever done. Because it was a pilgrimage route, the mountain trails are actually steps—hundreds and thousands of steps built into the side of the mountain. Most of them are only about six inches wide and they weave back and forth across the mountain side in order to be crossable…. I suspect that holding onto the railings and chains kept me from falling on multiple occasions.

Proof that I was there! :)

Honestly, we went faster than I would have liked, but there is nothing that inspires speed like the fear of being left behind by your tour bus in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country where one is not fluent in the language. So we had almost no breaks and very few photo opportunities, and managed to get down the mountain in two hours! We definitely beat the queue at the top. My legs were shaking, my knees and calves ached, and my shoulders and neck were sore from the weight of my backpack, but I did it. I even managed to push my way through the hordes waiting for the bus without losing my friends in the crowd or falling over!

And so that was our day! There was a small adventure of convincing the woman checking bus tickets to let us buy new ones after we were already on the bus, but otherwise the evening consisted of chatting with my Korean friends and enjoying dinner. And when we finally returned that evening to the hotel, I can safely say that I felt as though the day had been a triumph.

Random Note: The picture below is one that I thought had sort of a cute story. For those of you who have been to China, you have probably seen how people are fascinated by light skin and blond hair. For many Chinese who are traveling to tourist sites, if this is their first time out of their province, they haven’t seen any/many foreigners in person. So sometimes, I get asked to join their family pictures–you know, at the Great Wall, at the Forbidden City, at the Summer Palace…. I still get looks of surprise and interest sometime when I’m going down into the subway to get to school in the morning, and I live in Beijing where foreigners are really not that rare. So when we were asked to join this family’s picture, I thought it was sort of cute and also something interesting to share with all of you. :)

From left to right:

And so someone's family photo has four strangers in it…. mostly because I have blond hair….?

Mother, Children, Olga (ÀoGé 奥格), Jínsùyīng, Me, and LeēXiánGěng. Jínsùyīng and LeēXiánGěng are two of our Korean friends.

For those of you who know much about China, there are two weeks that it is most inadvisable to travel during. Those weeks are October 1st through 7th, National Week, and the dates of the Spring Festival,  also called the Chinese New Year. This is because everybody in China wants to travel during these weeks, which tie up the train systems, the public transit, the roads…. you get the picture. Imagine the traffic you see when you’re trying to get home for Thanksgiving multiplied by about twenty because of how crowded the East Coast of China is and you will have some idea of the sort of traffic that you run into during this week.

So of course, being as intensively interested in experiencing Chinese culture as I am, I decided that National Week would be the perfect time for a trip to Xi’an! (You may believe that my decision to travel had something to do with the practical fact that we have a ten day break from classes from the 1st to the 10th, making it much more possible to travel than at any other point during the semester–but I shall maintain that I wanted a truly Chinese experience. It is absolutely imperative to me that I explore as many aspects of Chinese culture as I can while I am here, and that includes the shoving my way through hordes of people to get onto a train to Xi’an.) And such an experience it was!

The day started for me when my Russian friend and classmate Olga (or 奥格,Ao Ge, her Chinese name) came over to my house. My host mother, hearing of our plans to take the subway and then a taxi, was very kind and insisted on driving us to the train station to save us the trouble of dealing with the public transit system during the holidays. When we arrived at the train station, we immediately realized that the encounter were about to engage in was one that neither of us had ever quite experienced before–there were people everywhere.

When I say people everywhere, most Americans will imagine a scene like this:

I would like you to know that that is not at all what things look like when there are people all over the place. That is what things look like when there are lots of people in one central location. When I say that there are people everywhere, I meant that there were actually people EVERYWHERE. I did not take a picture because I was worried that I would drop things or hit people as I tried to turn around with the camera, which had already occurred many times as 奥格 and I navigated through the crowds. There were people and their suitcases on all of the seats, and people and their suitcases in front of all of the seats. People were squatting on the ground, sitting on portable seats,  standing around in crowds. It made me think of when you look at a picture of the different states of matter: in most places in the world and at most times, trying to navigate through crowds is really not much more difficult than being a gas molecule zipping around all the other gas molecules with quite a bit of space in between.

Not so in China during National Week. This was much more like an atom trying to navigate through something between a liquid and a solid–there was enough room that you could push your way through, but not quite enough that you could do so without shoving somebody out of the way to do so. We navigated to the area where our line was forming, and within an hour we had made it through the crowds, shown our tickets to the counters, and were making our way onto the train!

Now in China, there are different types of trains and different classes on each of them–the train we were on was a daily train that runs from Beijing to Xi’an. Classified as a “T” train, that means that it is a fast train, going around 140 km/hour and only stopping a handful of times along the way. There are some trains that get above 300 km/hour and make few stops; there are other “K” trains that go more slowly and make more stops. Because this trip is so long, the train that we were on is filled entirely with hard sleeper compartments, which brings me to explaining the difference between classes on Chinese trains.

The highest class for a long trip is a Deluxe Soft Car–and as far as I know, only the very wealthy ever bother to use these. When you pay the extravagant prices for such a thing, you get a double bedroom and your own mini bathroom, which I will admit could be quite nice when you were on a long trip. However, much more affordable is the regular Soft Car, which costs around $60 and has four people per room, little televisions for each bed, and a locking sliding door to keep other people from entering the room. But even more affordable is the option that most Chinese take when they are traveling on longer trips, and that is the Hard Berth car. The beds themselves are not all that different from the soft sleeper cars–they are perhaps slightly less padded, which is the reason for the name, and there are three beds per bunk rather than two–but this is not the difference between the classes. These cars are very much a communal experience, because they don’t actually have doors to separate each little compartment–instead, they are simply open to the hallway, putting you at the mercy of any passers by who believe that they have something to talk to you about.

However, I absolutely LOVE traveling by hard berth! In the West, most people would probably find it unnerving to sleep out in the open where anybody could wander by–and I suppose that if I was taking valuables with me, I might be anxious about it as well. However, because I am a poor college student and not stupid enough to drag an unneeded laptop along just for the heck of it, I was not at all concerned about people taking my stuff because it consisted entirely of clothing which would not fit most Chinese, two English paperback books that I bought in Beijing for about two dollars each, and my toothbrush/hairbrush/etc. In addition, because I am a wary traveler, I slept with my stuff on the bunk with me–and, since I was on the top bunk, somebody would have had to climb all the way up there to take anything, which would have been noticed by 奥格 or myself. (This is perhaps the one instance in which I was thankful for being somewhat short–I could stick my stuff on the end of the bunk and still sleep there without feeling too cramped.)

And so we set off, with myself and 奥格 hanging out on the bottom bunk of our section and chatting with the other people in our compartment. Traveling in China is certainly a different experience than traveling in America. One of the big differences is that Americans tend to like quiet–trains are usually quit, excepting the noise of the movement. Not so in China–Chinese people like their places to be what they call 热闹热闹的, or noisy/lively. Thus, traveling on the train you will always hear something going on–people are chatting in nearly every compartment; children are running around and chasing each other in the corridors. Some people play music, others play card games. If you want to be left alone, you can be–but if you show any willingness to try and converse with those around you, they’ll take it. The bottom bunks tend to be considered rather communal because the upper bunks simply aren’t convenient for sitting around or talking to others–for example, the gentleman on the opposite middle bunk was hanging out on the bottom for a few hours as he chatted to 奥格 and myself. His wife had spotted us as they came on, poked him in the shoulder, and then waved shyly at us as he very cheerfully and clearly said “Hello!” From this brief exchange started a conversation which must have lasted nearly an hour and a half–this man was very keen on chatting with us, and once he found out that we knew some Chinese, he ecstatically set off. The topic of conversation ranged from our study plans and experiences so far in China, which we were able to understand and respond to, to China’s growth, economics, foreign politics, and the situations faced by minorities, in which we were only able to catch a word or sentence here and there. I am ashamed to say that I “听不懂” (tingbudong, listened but didn’t understand) a whole bunch, and thus spent a great deal of time saying “Yes!” or “I see” when he paused to see what we thought.

Overall, the hard berths on Chinese trains are definitely deserving of a thumbs up–I will definitely consider taking this travel option in the future, both because it was a lot of fun and is also super-cheap!

But enough about Chinese trains–while I find them fascinating, and I hope that you all do to, I’m sure that you’re far more interested in hearing about what we did our first day in Xi’an, and so I shall move on to that.

Honestly, I think that what we did most of in Xi’an was waiting. The day started with a blinding flash of light which woke me from my slumber–and after a moment of confusion and irritation, I realized that this was because we were arriving in Xi’an very shortly. I was slightly miffed that we were so early, as it was about 4 in the morning, but such was the train schedule. My first sight of Xi’an came with three quick realizations: 1) It was still pitch dark out; b) that we didn’t really know where exactly to go, and 3) that few of the other people around us spoke much English, and so any questions we wanted to ask would be asked and answered in Chinese. After figuring out that the stairs down marked “Subway Out” were in fact the regular exit from the train station, Olga and I were pleased. After all, how many tou groups with yellow flags could there be this early in the morning? Well, the answer was at least five, none of which were ours. After waving away screaming old women trying to sell me maps of Xi’an, darting our way through the hordes of people flocking towards friends, family members, and tour groups, and pulling my cell phone out of my purse without flashing my wallet, we managed to touch base with our group.

Unfortunately, this was when we realized that perhaps the person who had sold us the tour group had not been entirely honest with us, because the person who called my phone did not speak any English at all. Normally this would not have been such a problem, but we were in the middle of a very loud crowd and thus it was difficult to hear his voice–however, we managed to figure out where he was and made our way over to the group. They were, by the way, NOT waving a yellow flag, but rather a red flag. (Well, you know…. red and yellow. 红色 and 黄色… I will admit my mistake in this; it is entirely possible that I heard “Huangse” when the woman had told me “Hongse.”) They sent us inside to wait for half an hour. An hour later, the woman came in and told us that our tour guide would be calling in twenty minutes, because the woman who had greeted us was not our tour guide. Thirty five minutes later, we got another phone call in Chinese from our tour guide, who then led us over to a group of Chinese travelers to a large bus for (you guessed it!) MORE waiting as travelers arrived.

At this point, 奥格 and I were starting to worry–you see, we had paid so much money out to this tour group because they had informed us we would have an English speaking guide–and while this woman was in fact the right tour guide, she spoke no English at all, and our tour was with only Chinese nationals, most of whom also spoke no English. We also found out that we did not get all of our meals provided, which had also been promised, and that some of our tickets were not paid for.  This seemed to be no surprise to the Chinese nationals, and so I can only surmise that the problem was not with the company in Xi’an but with the office in Beijing. This was when I decided I would no more shell money out to other people to buy tickets for me–in the future, when I travel, I will do so on my own initiative and with a great deal of research in advance so that I can locate an English speaking guide whence I arrive.

The reasons for this are more than simply the bad experience with overpaying for the tour of Xi’an–the major reason for this is that I want to see China, and it is difficult to do so when you have only a very specific amount of time to see things in. When our tour finally got going, we went to a very beautiful area called 骊山,or “Lishan.” [For those of you that didn't know, 山 is the Chinese word for Mountain. So when I talk about places like Lishan, I am talking about Li Mountain. It is simply easier to say Lishan.] 骊山 is what remains of one of the larger imperial gardens in China–and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. But the problem is that we hardly got to see any of it, because we spent three hours waiting in line to take a cablecar up the mountain.

Lishan Panorama

Here is a panoramic shot that I took at the top of the mountain–looking out to the right, you can see the city of Xi’an spreading out. (I have just recently found the way to turn multiple photographs of the same thing into a very nice large panorama. Expect to see a lot of panoramic shots in the future.) However, one of the more interesting aspects of this picture is the fact that you can also see the smog in the air–because Lishan is just outside the city limits and is located higher up, you can escape some of the smog and actually breathe relatively clean air. But if you look at the air over the city, you can actually see the difference in the air…. Yum. However, bad air quality is one thing that you “get used to” when you’ve been in China for a while, and so while I am not at all fond of the air quality, it has ceased to bother me as much as it did when I first arrived here.

As we hiked down the mountain, we ran into a handful of other interesting things–because the tour guide spoke Chinese, I often couldn’t understand what they were. However, there is one area which stood out to me, and it is the location of the Xi’an Incident.

In Honor of the Xi'an Incident

For those of you who are not familiar with Chinese history, the first half of the twentieth century was a time of great change for China. In 1911, the last dynasty of China, the Qing, fell, and a new system of government was set up under Sun Yat-sen. However, by the 1920′s, there was already a great deal of contention between political groups, the two most famous of which were the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalist party led by Chiang Kai-shek (also called Jiang Jieshi).

By the mid 1930′s, Japan’s invasion of China was already underway, and China was split into a civil war environment. In the north was the Communist Party; in the South, Chiang Kaishek was fighting with many warlords to try and unite China before going to war with Japan. Because of the great difference in their policies and mistrust of one another, Chiang Kaishek tried to purge the Communists and refused to consider working with them against the Japanese. In 1936, two of Chiang Kaishek’s generals decided that it was necessary for them to work together if they had any chance of defeating the Japanese and taking back control of China–and so they staged a coup, kidnapping Chiang Kaishek and forcing him to negotiate with the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Of all the places we saw that morning, I think that this one struck me the most because it reminded me that it was in this city that one of the momentous, history changing decisions was reached. Had things gone different, who knows what would have happened? While the ancient palaces are beautiful in their own way, they didn’t capture my interest as this did. (Part of this was probably because I could understand what was being talked about here in this section; I’ve studied modern Chinese history more than ancient. The rest of the tour might have blown my mind, but I don’t know because I couldn’t understand anything the tour guide was saying…. Which distinctly lowered my interest in the other locations.)

We stopped off at a few other minor sites, but to be honest, I think the best part of the day was getting to see the terracotta warriors (In Chinese, 兵马俑,the Bingmayong.) This was both because, again, I knew about the topic–but also because we found out that there were also some Korean girls on our tour who were other international students from Beijing. They kindly took us under their wing, since their Chinese level was higher than ours, and we spent a great deal of the afternoon exploring the 兵马俑 museum and chatting with them. Some of the ancient art in the museum was really neat, but the Terracotta Warriors themselves are, of course, the highlight.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to spend too much time there because we were only given an hour and a half to get there, see everything, eat, and get back to the bus…. So we explored one of the lesser museums and then ran in to see the lines of warriors before navigating our way back to the bus. Luckily, we ran into a kind gentleman from our tour group who knew exactly where we were going. It was quite gratifying to hear his surprise and approval when I talked to him in Chinese for a bit–although we can’t understand the tour guide, at least we’re doing alright when we converse with other Chinese!

And that was pretty much the end of the first day–the remainder of the evening was, no joke, spent trying to get to our hotel. It’s usually a 35 or 40 minute ride from the center of Xi’an to the Terracotta Warriors–unfortunately for us, this time it took five hours! XD And so, as I said…. much waiting.

Thus marks the end of our first day in Xi’an.

Hello Everyone! In honor of the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节)I am going to update my blog a little bit out of order! As you probably noticed, I’m not very good at regularly updating things, and so I figured that updating while this is still fresh in my mind would be best. :) Look for other updates soon about my trips to the Zoo and the Great Wall!

For those of you who have never heard of the Mid Autumn Festival, also called the Moon Festival, it’s a big holiday in China. It happens every year on the full moon–traditionally, it’s a time for returning home to visit with family. It’s also a time for moon cakes–and for those of you who have never eaten one, I recommend trying them! They’re absolutely delicious! Here in China, you can find freshly made mooncakes at most of the grocery stores, and so my family has been picking them up on a semi-regular basis and eating them for breakfast.

Because it’s a holiday, everybody in Beijing City gets two or three days off from work–unfortunately, Beida doesn’t run on the same schedule, so I only had one day off from classes–but what a day it was! My host family and I had a really great time because we went to their other house, which isn’t actually in Beijing. If you look at a map of Beijing, you’ll notice that it’s organized very well–there are six rings distinguishing different sections of the city. The first and most inner ring is where most of the tourist attractions are–Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden Palace, and a whole bunch of big museums are all there. The other rings bring you further towards the outskirts of Beijing–my home is in the third ring; Beida is in the fourth ring, and after that you’re not really in downtown Beijing for much longer. My family’s other house is in the Beijing Development Area (BDA) just outside the city, and it’s honestly one of the nicest homes I’ve seen! They live in a apartment complex that is made up of a whole bunch of condo-like houses–everyone has their own small backyard area, and it was really nice to get a little bit of breathing room!

But the best part was getting to meet my host brother David’s extended family–the house in BDA is shared with his father’s parents, his 爷爷 (Yeye, paternal grandfather) and 奶奶(Nainai, paternal grandmother). I also got to meet his two aunts, one of his uncles, and his two paternal cousins! His family is from the northeastern area of China, near Harbing, and so they have a different accent than the 普通话 (Putonghua, standard accent) or the 北京话 (Beijinghua, the Beijing accent) that I’m used to hearing. *

However, while it was a bit difficult to communicate entirely in Chinese, I absolutely love his family–they are some of the kindest and most welcoming people I have had the privilege of meeting. David’s 爷爷 is really into photography, and so while we were walking around throughout the day, he took a whole bunch of pictures! It was neat to talk with him for a bit; he’s been a photographer for a while, and he’s traveled to Russia, America, and a couple other countries! Unfortunately, I don’t speak any Russian, but we spoke a bit in Chinese. I’m hoping that next time we visit, I’ll be able to see some of the other pictures he’s taken on his travels! Here’s one of the pictures that he took of us!

On the left is my host father– I call him “叔叔,” (Shushu) which is Chinese for Uncle. Next is my host mother, Vivian! My host brother David isn’t in the picture because he was playing basketball with his cousin. On my other side is David’s older cousin. Because China has the one-child policy, I’ve realized that it’s very common for cousins to be close, because they don’t have any siblings. So although she’s his cousin, David calls her “姐姐,” (Jiejie), which means older sister. His younger cousin, Owen, is his “弟弟,” (Didi) which means younger brother. I think that’s really sweet–and since I’m his American sister, I call everybody by the family relation term too! Continuing on, you see his aunt and then 奶奶。I’m really hoping to get to know 爷爷and 奶奶 better; I know that 奶奶 likes to play Mahjong, which I think is really neat! I’m going to be learning how to play Mahjong tomorrow evening, so maybe after I’ve learned I’ll be able to play with 奶奶!The weather that day was beautiful, and I think that everybody enjoyed walking in the local  公园 (gongyuan, park)! We also went out to celebrate 中秋节 together, which was very enjoyable! I still end up trying new foods almost every time we go out to eat, and I have to say that I’m still enjoying all the new tastes, even after almost a month in Beijing.

However, one of the best parts of the holiday was the evening–after we came back from the park and ate dinner, we went outside to follow the Chinese tradition for the 中秋节–we ate moon cakes, 月饼,Yuebing, and watched the moon.

So that was my 中秋节 experience! I hope that those of you in America have a wonderful Moon Festival–and if you look at the full moon, think of me!

祝你们中秋节快乐!

*Note: For those of you who don’t know about the Chinese accents, the most desired dialect is called Putonghua (普通话). It’s the standard Chinese that people are taught in schools–however, every regional dialect has its own differences. The Beijing dialect (北京话) is, for the most part, very close to 普通话–however! The one thing that I have noticed is different is that 北京话 changes the ends of words ending in n. For example: The word “门” is usually pronounced “Men.” But the Beijing accent changes it to “Mer.” This happens with a lot of words, and I have already started to pick it up–I guess by the time I come home, my Chinese accent will be 北京话!

So I left off last week having spoken of getting adjusted to China–and as much as this is a case, I am also definitely a visitor! Since my first weekend was free of any obligations for classes, I decided to try and get to know the area of Beijing that I live in and see some of the well known sites nearby. My host mother was kind enough to accompany me (and my friend, Nina) to the Summer Palace (颐和园). For those of you who have not heard of the Summer Palace, it was a residence of the Emperors and Empresses of China that is now located in Northwestern Beijing. Actually, it’s very near to where I live and to 北大 (my college), which made it a spectacularly convenient place to go.

It’s got some absolutely gorgeous scenery, because there’s a gorgeous lake with some man-made islands that was put in for the emperors to enjoy some time ago. There were little coves that were just filled with water lilies, lotuses, and other gorgeous water-life. However, there are also a number of old buildings, done in the traditional Chinese architectural style, that are major attractions.

Perhaps one of the most famous is the Marble Boat, also known as the Clear and Peaceful Boat. In 1886, the Empress Cixi of China was given a huge amount of money to rebuild the navy for China. Her claim to fame as a shipbuilder lies in only one boat: The Marble Boat. It is completely stationary and is in fact made of marble and sits upon Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. She used it largely for throwing tea parties and as a restaurant. It is honestly a gorgeous piece of work, and were it still open, I might have considered taking a meal on it, but alas it is now simply a part of the scenery.

My host mother and Nina and I walked the entire way around the Summer Palace–and I have to say, while it was a long walk, I was definitely able to appreciate the beauty a lot more than when I came in 2006.

On Monday, I took the language placement test–I came out of it feeling like I didn’t know anything, but everything worked out well! Because some of the students taking the test are practically fluent in Chinese, the test needs to cover a huge range of linguistic understanding and vocabulary, from those who have never studied Chinese to those who are almost testing out of it and into regular university courses. So although I felt I didn’t really know very much, I still placed into the intermediate classes, which is where I had been hoping to be. :) However, I think that the more challenging test was one of patience. The process of registering for classes after we had been placed was much more arduous–on Tuesday, we had to go in to see which two levels they recommended for us and then choose one. This would seem straightforward, but reading the charts was rather confusing because not all of the information on the charts was important, but they didn’t clarify which was important and which wasn’t. So once we figured out where we were supposed to go, we had to look at the two options they gave us for classes: easy or hard. The difference seemed to just be which textbook we were using; I chose the harder levels. The next day, we had to come back and see which actual classes we would be in, and then classes started on Thursday.

So far I am really enjoying my classes! I have two, 汉语 (reading and written Chinese) and 口语 (spoken Chinese). Starting next week, I will also start an elective and the Dickinson culture course, which looks really intriguing! Although the two classes have different focuses, they’re very much alike in the sense that both have a ton of new words, and so I’ve been spending a ton of time studying the new words. I have a feeling my vocabulary is going to take a pretty giant leap this semester, which I’m very happy about!

One of the most interesting things that I have seen this week has absolutely nothing to do with Chinese history or registering for classes, but rather with American politics, and it is an Obama t-shirt that I saw at the Summer Palace. I am seriously considering getting this picture as a gift for my grandfather and perhaps a few other people from home, largely because I think that they might actually consider wearing it!

Obama in ChinaIn case the picture tis too small, or in case you don’t recognize the clothing, the shirts are of Obama wearing the traditional Communist soldier attire. (The text reads: Yes We Can! The revolution isn’t success(ful) comrades, we must continue to be studious!) Yep, I’m pretty sure that this should become typical American-ware.

By the way: I also saw Obama socks at a separate store. I am pretty seriously considering buying some Obama-ware for my friend Colin due to his love for the man, and so if anyone from the dorm is looking at this, I would like your advice on whether or not he would kill me for gifting him with something like this.

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