Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Weekend Adventures (Part Two)

** New pictures from the past weekend uploaded to Webshots **

Sunday morning we met our driver at 7:30am for the 40-minute ride to the Great Wall (长成) at HuangYa Guan Pass. Dr. Lan had helped us arrange transportation the previous day and our driver agreed to take us to the wall, pick us up, take us back to the hotel to grab our bags and then to the train station. All for a little under $15.

The wall at HuangYa Guan was not nearly as touristy as the section at Badaling, which was fun. The whole day we saw mostly Chinese tourists with the exception of two Englishmen we ran into at one particularly steep climb. The wall here was less restored, more remote and more rugged. With fewer people and virtually no other westerners, it was almost like having our own section of the wall to explore.

One of the first things we noticed was that the Great Wall was also much steeper here. Our legs, still recovering from countless hundreds of stairs at Pan Shan the day before, were not as happy about the climb. The scenery and sense of adventure was well worth it, however. I still find it amazing that a wall over 3,000 miles long could be built and defended two millenia ago, but when you see the elevation that some of the wall is built upon, the feat seems even more incredible. One section of the wall did dead end as it ran into a nearly vertical section of the mountain, that proved to be too steep for building. There are many rumors as to how many workers died building the wall, even going up to unrealistic numbers of one worker per every few stones. It is clear that the massive defensive undertaking did take its toll on the Chinese peasants and a number of bones have been found buried inside the wall.

Once we reached the end of this section of the Wall, we decided to turn back and go the other direction. Here, most people take a bus to the top and walk down due to the steepness, but we decided to try on our own. After an impossibly strenuous climb and the laughs of Chinese going down with the help of gravity, we finally made it up the mountain on this side of the wall.

Finally, it was time for our driver to pick us up and take us back into town. The drive down the narrow country road that winds it way through the surrounding foothills was without a doubt the scariest part of the weekend. Along the way, cars are constantly leap-frogging one another while trying to avoid the on-coming traffic in the other lane. Luckily, we made it back in one piece (I have seen surprisingly few accidents for all the terrible driving I have witnessed) and were able to get train tickets back to Tianjin.

Being a smaller town, there is only one train per day that departs from Ji for Tianjin. The train ticket only costs $1, but unfortunately this was a regular passenger train and had no air-conditioning. As we pulled away from the station and settled into our seats (benches really) it almost seemed like a trip back in time. We were boarding a train that may have been in service during the early 20th century, except that it probably would have had a fresher paint job at that time. Despite the fact that the seats seemed to be mostly full, we made 10 stops along the way to pick up more passengers from the countryside who flooded into the aisles. Two and a half long hours later, we were back in Tianjin.

Luckily, when we make the 25-hour train ride to Chengdu later this week, we'll be on a modern train equipped with A/C and nice sleeping cars. Overall though, we had a fun weekend and felt that it would be a good warm-up for our upcoming traveling. We were able to successfully get food, shelter and from place A to B; so we should be fine! I think that Dr. Lan was also very excited that we stayed an extra night as it was a bit more adventurous than most of the other students, many of whom were just returning to Beijing to go shopping. We enjoyed the chance to be out on our own and are looking forward to getting to see more of China in the upcoming weeks!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Weekend Adventures (Part 1)

Saturday morning Janet, myself, and 30 other FSU students loaded onto a couple of buses for a drive to Pan Shan (盘山), the most important mountain in the Tianjin area.We were excited as we had been planning to visit Mt. Pan already, but had found out that Dr. Lan was planning to take us for a day trip.

As we began to make our way up the mountain we appreciated the cleaner, cooler air of the countryside. The scenery and shade were a nice break from the big city. A short way up, we came upon a small waterfall and everyone excitedly snapped pictures. Further up was a Buddhist temple that dated back to the Tang Dynasty (built around 700AD).

We also quickly discovered that climbing the mountains here is no easy feat! At every turn we were greeted with a new, endless stairway along the mountainside, but the scenery and sense of adventure kept everyone moving onward (against the wishes of our legs and knees).

At one point we came around a bend to find around 100 stone markers clustered at different levels along the mountain. It was a shaded area and the wind was blowing small leaves that almost seemed to rain down and swirl along the tombstones. Dr. Lan explained that they marked the burial spots of head monks who had lived and died on the mountain long ago.

Further up, we came upon a larger temple with separate Bell and Drum Towers. You could ring the bell 3 times for 1RMB, which was an offer we couldn't refuse! The tower had a large bell (maybe 4 feet in diameter at the bottom and about 6 feet high) and we used a swinging wooden ram to ring the bell, which you could hear for a long distance around the mountain.

Just past the temple and bell towers were cable cars that would take us on a 28-minute ride to near the summit of the mountain. Wanting to make it all the way to the top, Janet and I boarded which is difficult since their cars seem to move faster than the ski lifts back home. Interesting, along the way, they were pumping out loud "traditional" sounding Chinese music from the cable car towers. Apparently playing loud music at tourist/scenic spots around China seems to be the norm. As our car climbed higher, we noticed that the peak of the mountain was hidden behind the clouds and us we ascended into them we couldn't even see the car in front of us on the line!

The car dropped us off probably some 200 feet or so from the summit, so more stairs were in store! Luckily the air was noticeably cooler and the views were breathtaking. It was exactly the type of scene that you picture when you think of movies in China; green, jagged mountains, with clouds rolling around the top. A hundred or so uneven stairs later, we finally reached the summit!

After enjoying a few minutes at the top, we made our descent, which was much easier than the way up. We had a quick lunch at what was more or less a farmhouse at the bottom of the mountain and then went into town to visit a temple there that is one of the oldest surviving wooden temples in China. It was actually pretty interesting that the structure had lasted for so long and survived the Cultural Revolution, but I think by this time, most people were "templed out" for the day.

That evening, the other students were taking the bus back to Tianjin, but Janet and I decided to stay in the local town overnight so that we could visit the Great Wall again the next day. With the help of Dr. Lan and one of the travel agents from our school, we were able to book a nice room in a 3-star hotel for 160RMB and arrange for a driver to pick us up the next morning for a round trip visit to the Great Wall, about 40 minutes outside of the town.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Just a Quick Update

I'm back safely from my weekend home stay. It went pretty well; the parents were very nice and generous, but their daughter didn't speak English very well, so it was a little bit awkward as we had a communication barrier. It seems like most students got paired up with Chinese students who were English majors, but mine was a Computer Science major, so her English was not as good.

I'll try to post a more detailed account of my experience soon, but since there is so much to say, it has been hard to find the time to sit down and type it all out.

Sunday afternoon, after returning to the school, we attended a Peking Opera performance. There were a total of 3 plays (about 45 minutes each). The first and third play were "Wenxi," meaning that they focus on singing and music to move the story forward. There were not quite as interesting as the middle play, which was a "Wuxi," or fighting play. This style play focuses on acrobatic style fighting and can be enjoyed even without a good understanding of the language. Many of the younger Chinese people I have spoken with seem to find the Peking Opera not interesting (as many young Americans also find our opera not interesting) and the crowd at the show was our group and elderly Chinese.

I've posted a few pictures from the opera under the "Around Tianjin" album on my webshots page.

More to come soon....

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Xing Ba Ke

Last night Janet and I went to a nearby Starbucks to study. The Chinese know Starbucks as Xing Ba Ke. Xing means "star" and Ba Ke, I guess, sounds close enough to "buck." Unfortunately the drinks are just as expensive as they are in the United States.

Sometimes in the U.S., you may hear people complain about "income disparity" or the "increasing income gap," but in China the gap between rich and poor seems comparatively much greater. My 30 kuai hot chocolate could have easily bought two meals at local eateries. Things here tend to be either very cheap or quite expensive (sometimes arbitrarily so), in which case they become status symbols. The class division here seems more open than in the U.S., despite the country's roots in socialist philosophy, calling for an egalatarian society.

Our school, for example, has very clear-cut divisions. You can easily tell which students are popular by the way they look, how they dress and who they hang out with. Often, people from one level are against hanging out with those they may think to be "beneath" them. It is a bit like high school in he U.S., only we usually have grown out of that by the time we are in college. As foreigners, we are generally exempt from these class divisions, but possession of us is closely guarded. The other day when Janet and her roommate went to meet with some Chinese girls, both seemed offended that the other Chinese girl was there and they barely acknowledged each other.

Here you can find streets of shops where people may spend $100-200 U.S. Dollars on clothes, while outside poorer people are collecting empty water bottles from trash cans for the few cents they can make on recycling them.

As the Chinese economy continues to grow, the standard of living for everyone should rise. In the meantime, it remains a place of great income division that seems a bit like the "Robber Barron" age of the late 19th century, during which America experienced a period of rapid growth. Although growing pains will inevitably accompany industrialization and modernization in China, in the end everyone stands to gain from the liberalization of markets and a free economy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Xi'an Day 3

In the morning of Day 3 we visited the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. This Buddhist temple was built in the mid- 7th century by the Tang Dynasty. A temple was used to hold translations of Buddhist scriptures brought back by a Chinese monk who had spent a number of years studying Buddhism in India. Originally five stories high, another five stories were added about 50 years later. Today, due to an earthquake, the pagoda is just seven stories tall and stands about 210 feet high.

When we got to the temple, there were a large number of monks lined up at the entrance. We soon discovered that we arrived on a special day and the monks were all part of a procession waiting to greet the head monk of Guangdong Province who was visiting the Wild Goose Pagoda. A large crowd had gathered to try and catch a glimpse of the 101 year-old monk. One of our teachers tried to explain it to us by comparing the monk to Pope John Paul II (perhaps not realizing that he had died a couple of years back), but we got the idea.

After the crowds had died down a bit, we ascended to the top of the Pagoda ourselves. The top floor is very small, perhaps 50 square feet, and was packed with nearly 20 people. It was very hot and we didn't stay long. Climbing the Pagoda was kind of just a thing to do in order to be able to say you did it; we climbed all the way to the top!

After leaving the Pagoda, we were very hungry, but our lunch was delayed by a trip to a nearby government store designed to sell jade to tourists. Government stores are an interesting concept, because I can't really think of something similar that we have in the United States. More than likely if the government wanted to sell trinkets to people, they would contract a private company to do it for them.

Another important thing to remember when traveling in China is that your tour guide is out to make extra money. Very likely the restaurants you eat at and the hotel you stay at all have a relationship with the travel agency and are getting kick backs for having you spend money there. I heard a horror story of a group that went to Tibet with a tour group (usually the only way you can get in, as the Chinese place restrictions on foreign visitors there) and were taken to the same restaurant for dinner each night!

Additionally, your guide will take you to these government stores which are extremely overpriced and will likely be getting a commission off of anything you buy in the store. Generally everyone that is brought into the stores is told about a "special" 40-50% discount off of the marked prices and because of this and the excuse that the government sets the prices and ensures quality, you can't bargain down the prices. The discount is a joke as it is given to everyone (not just your group as they may claim) and almost certainly the goods are marked up even higher just so they can pretend to give you a great discount.

That aside, the quality of the jade sculptures and jewelry certainly seemed to be pretty good, but the prices just are not really worth it. Some of the larger sculptures can cost from a few thousand U.S. Dollars to tens of thousands of U.S. Dollars. You have to wonder who buys the foot-high jade sculpture of a cow with a price tag of $20,000... and then what they do with it? Does it just sit on the end of your mantle? Was it a good investment?

After some time at the store, we finally had lunch and then in the afternoon we had more free time so the teachers asked our guide to take us to a more affordable store since some people still wanted to pick up souvenirs. Instead he took us to a different government store with equally high prices! It actually ended up being an annoying afternoon as everyone (teachers included) were getting frustrated with the guide.

That evening, he somewhat redeemed himself as we visited a nearby hotel for a Western-style dinner. We had spaghetti, french fries, chicken tenders, and other American dishes. The food was clearly Chinese food trying to be Western, but after three weeks in China, it tasted extremely good.

After dinner it was time for our excursion in Xi'an to come to an end and we drove back to the airport. Our plane did not leave until shortly after 10 and we didn't get back to the university in Tianjin until nearly 1 AM. Despite the shopping scams, the trip to Xi'an was great overall, though tiring.

A final couple of notes of warning to anyone traveling to China:

As discussed, your tour guide is out for kick-backs. I've heard the advice to always ask for a detailed itinerary before making a commitment so that you know exactly what you will be getting. Also, don't buy unless you really feel that the item is worth the price. If you see something you like at a government store, you can probably get it cheaper elsewhere if you have time to look around. If you do buy elsewhere, be sure to check the quality of the item and make sure that the change you receive (if using large bills) is real or better yet, pay with small bills.

Also common sense, but be careful. One kid was pick pocketed while we were in Xi'an. Whenever you are in a popular tourist spot, always be careful with your belongings and be aware of your surroundings. Though China is relatively safe (as punishment here tends to be severe) its always good to be alert when visiting tourists spots wherever you may be in the world.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Xi'an - Day Two

On day two I woke up excited to go see the famous Terracotta Army.

The army was constructed by Qin ShiHuang, who became the first emperor of China in 221 BC (Qin dynasty) after defeating his rival states.

Shortly after becoming King of Qin, he order construction to begin on his tomb, which seems like a morbid first act. 38 years and hundreds of thousands of workers later, he had an army of about 8,000 life-size warriors to guard his tomb when he died. The tomb was only rediscovered in 1974 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

After a 10-minute, semi-treacherous walk through vendors hawking cheap miniature warriors, we arrived at the tomb. Before going in we watched a short video on the history of the tombs. It was a 360-degree movie that reminded me a lot of the 360-degree China video at Epcot.

When we finally walked into Pit 1, where most of the restored warriors are, it was very impressive. I thought of how I had seen pictures of the terracotta army in a number of books on ''world wonders'' and was now actually at the site looking at them. Each warrior was sculpted with such fine detail and supposedly no two have the same faces.

Aside from being impressed, I couldn't help but think about the wastefulness of the army. While the emperor thought the army would serve him after his death, at what cost did it come to his empire? 700,000 people worked for almost 4 decades to construct a wonder that would be buried with the emperor. The modern day idea of passing on wealth, whether to charity, family or whomever, seems to be a bit more productive than burying yourself with it. At least now, people from all over the world are able to enjoy the site and the Chinese enjoy sharing their history so maybe, 2200 years later, the army does serve a real purpose.

Of course the route back to the bus, which was different than the first route from the bus to the tomb, was full of even more vendors. Dodging calls of ''One Dollar'' and ''Hello'' we finally made it back to the relative safety of the tour bus.

After leaving the tomb and terracotta warriors, our next stop was the Huaqing Hot Springs. The springs had been enjoyed by Chinese rulers for nearly 3,000 years. During the Tang Dynasty, a palace was built here and the Emperor would enjoy the hot water during the winter months.

The springs were a fun place to walk around and the Chinese, adapting to the lessons of capitalism, are quick to let you enjoy sticking your feet in the hot water for 10 yuan or at a fountain, you can wash your hands for just 1 yuan. For those looking to spend more, you can rent your own private bathroom and bath in the hot spring water. We actually found one part where you were able to put your hands into the hot water free of charge.

Also of note at the springs, the Tang Dynasty style of architecture provided a major influence to the traditional Japanese style. So many of the buildings look like what we may associate with classical Japanese architecture and were an influence on that style.

That evening we enjoyed a meal of Xi'an-style hot pot. Hot pot is a Chinese equivalent to western fondue. We made our own sauces from a variety of ingredients and then cooked food that was brought to our tables in little pots of boiling water in front of us. After the food was done cooking, you dipped it into your sauce and then ate. My sauce was made up of oil, soy sauce, minced garlic, and a few other ingredients and ended up being really good.

That evening, we had some free time before one final busy day in Xi'an.

Xi'an - Day One

Friday morning we boarded an 8AM flight for Xi'an, the original capital of imperial China.

Between our group and the students from Miami (Ohio) University, we managed to book most of the plane. The 75-minute flight would have been very pleasant if not for the fact that the A/C seemed to stop about halfway through the trip. Air was still coming out of the vents, but it was not really cold. A warm plane can quickly lead to restlessness. In an attempt to combat this, the airline played a video of a flight attendant leading us in a set of exercises to do on the plane to the tune of very upbeat music. It was a bit strange.

After landing in Xi'an and eating lunch, our first destination was the old city wall. The wall enclosed the ancient city of Xi'an, forming a square whose four sides total a little over 25km in length. The wall stands about 30 feet high and is about 12 meters wide at the base. Today the old city is at the center of modern-day Xi'an and is full of places to eat, shopping malls, clubs, and all other types of places for tourists to spend money. At the center of the old city is the Ancient Bell Tower that was used to sound the time during the day, for warning, or for important occasions.

Also located within the old city limits is the Great Mosque. Xi'an (which was then called Chang'an) marked a major eastern endpoint on the Silk Road. Along with a transfer of Oriental technology to the west, came a spread of some Islamic influence into China.

After walking along the old city wall, we went to the nearby Stele Forest. The ''Forest'' is actually a museum for stones with Chinese characters engraved. The oldest steles were from around 1500 years ago and the collection ranged from imperial edicts to full books by ancient scholars. Many of the stones were taller than us and most have weighed many tons. There were many different calligraphy styles represented and some of the characters were so small, that it must have taken great skill to carve them all so perfectly into the stones.

Afterwards we checked into our hotel before going back to the old city for a dinner of dumplings.
Xi'an is famous for producing many different types of dumplings. Our dinner consisted of 16 dishes of dumplings, with each being different from the last type. We had dumplings filled with pork, chicken, tomatoes, crab and walnuts among others. Some of the more fancy dumplings are made to resemble different types of flowers or animals. We saw a display with dumplings shaped like swans, frogs, roses, and more.

Following dinner, the group split up. Earlier in the day our tour guide sold most people tickets to a ''culture show'' for the evening, but Janet and I decided not to spend the extra 150RMB. I thought the show would consist mainly of people dressing in traditional Chinese costume with traditional dances and music. From my understanding, that is pretty much what it was.

Instead, we decided to spend more time walking around in the old city and ended up seeing our own ''culture show'' for free in a park right outside of the city wall. It seems that on weekend nights, many of the older people gather dance in the park. Some were playing drums and other instruments while a large group danced with fans and umbrellas. While at first it seemed like chaos, it became clear that there was some order to the dance and somehow everyone who joined in knew the steps. It was fascinating to watch. Despite a couple of invitations to join in, we decided to walk across the street to watch another group who had gathered to sing. There seemed to be an older man and woman leading and bypassers would gather around to join in singing what must have been fairly well-known songs as everyone seemed to know the lyrics. It was a great, free culture show and likely more enjoyable than being stuck with the other 60-odd students in a little theater.

After an adventure with our taxi driver not knowing how to get to our hotel (despite his assuring us he knew the way before we got in) we finally made it back to rest up for another busy day ahead of us...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

This Weekend

I just wanted to leave a quick entry to let everybody know that we will be heading for Xi'an this weekend.

Xi'an was the first capital of a united China under the Qin Empire. After nearly two centuries of what was known as the "warring states period," seven major kingdoms emerged in ancient China. The King of Qin gradually overpowered his neighbors and united China under one empire in 221 BC. This is a very famous period in China and is often depicted in martial arts movies such as Hero and The Emperor and the Assassin. While there had previously been other Chinese dynasties, this was considered to be the first major Chinese empire. Unfortunately for the Qin, they had exhausted most of their resources in building their empire and their reign was ended just 15 years later by the Han, who established the Han dynasty and would control China for the next 400 years.

Tomorrow morning at 6AM, we'll be leaving to catch a flight out of the Tianjin airport to the first imperial capital of China. The weekend should be an exciting one as we will see the famous terracotta warriors and a number of other culturally important sites around the city.

After we return, I'll try and upload some new pictures and add a new blog entry to share our trip with everyone back home.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Brief Recap

Janet and I spent this past weekend exploring Tianjin and I've added some new pictures from our trek.

With only a map, phrasebook and bottle of water we set out Saturday morning to explore the area to the south of the school. We found the Tianjin TV Tower, that looks somewhat like the Seattle Space Needle and bought tickets to visit the observation deck. The tower offered a great view of the nearby area, though visibility was limited due to smog. On the top deck we were standing 270 meters (or almost 900 feet) above the city. There was a small "sky walk" platform that extended out from the tower and had a glass floor. While the view of the street below was interesting, we decided to stay on the relative safety of the tower.

Our other major accomplishment of the day was learning (somewhat) how to navigate the bus system in Tianjin.

The two major activities on Sunday were a visit to Ancient Culture Street and the Tianjin Wal-Mart.

Culture Street is a big shopping area where you can find all types of traditional Chinese wares from silk and jade to tea sets and swords, they have just about anything a tourist could want. If anyone wants a tourist edition of Mao's "Little Red Book," just let us know.

Once we noticed Wal-Mart a few blocks away, we had to make a stop there as well. The first floor was a giant supermarket with everything from sea weed to mystery fruits (see pictures). The second floor held all of the home wares and really low priced clothing. Janet picked up a pair of shirts for about $4. Despite the extremely crowded conditions, our shopping experience at Wal-Mart here was probably a bit more pleasurable than the ones back home.

Today it was back to classes and the regular week routine. Wanting a little variety from the Chinese food on campus, we went to a nearby Thai restaurant with a couple of other friends. We had a communal style meal of Thai noodles, vegetables, curry chicken wings, spring rolls, and some type of very spicy soup that only warranted two peppers (out of a maximum three) on the menu. As we get to explore a little more of the city I think we are both looking forward to trying out some new places and different types of food.

Overall, it has been a busy past few days and we've managed to get by well enough despite the communication barrier. Its interesting to have the experience of being more or less illiterate and hearing small children on the streets communicate better than we can. We'll continue to take it one character at a time and slowly chip away at the language.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Beijing Part 2

Saturday we were scheduled to visit the Forbidden City in the morning and the Summer Palace in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the rain on Saturday was even heavier than the day before. As our tour group rushed through the Forbidden City, we saw a sea of umbrellas more than an elaborate palace where the Emperors of China had resided for 400 years up until the early 1900s.

The rain let up only slightly in the afternoon as we went to the Summer Palace. This was the home to the Emperors during the hot summer months. The site is mostly taken up by a man-made lake and elaborate gardens and was supposed to be cooler than the Palace in the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace was an exact opposite of the Forbidden City. Within the Forbidden City, there are no trees and the courtyards are paved with 15 layers of stones to protect the Emperor from assassins. The architecture and size of the city are impressive and the stone work very detailed, but also a bit austere with no greenery around.

The Summer Palace would really be a nice place to spend an afternoon when it is not raining, but unfortunately we did not have that luxury. Luckily between our rain jackets and umbrellas, we were able to keep drier than most and still enjoyed our walk around the Palace grounds.

After our time at the Summer Palace, our group trip to Beijing was officially over, but Janet and I (and many others) decided to spend an extra night in the city and had booked a hotel near the downtown area. The rooms were not nearly as nice as the TianTan Hotel, but still more enjoyable than the dorms. However, it seemed that few cab drivers knew how to get there and it proved to be a bit of an ordeal to finally get to the hotel.

The next day, we were rewarded for our trouble in getting to the hotel with a beautiful, sunny day. First thing, we wanted to go to the train station to book tickets back to Tianjin for that evening. With a little help from a local who spoke English very well, we were able to navigate the bus lines to the train station, where we were able to purchase tickets using our beginner Chinese. Deciding to take advantage of a nice day in Beijing, we went back to Tiananmen Square to walk around the downtown area for a while.

After a reassuring day of being able to navigate in the city by ourselves, we decided a celebratory meal at McDonald's was in store. Two double cheeseburger combo meals later (one for each of us) it was over to the station to catch our train home. The ride back to Tianjin took only about an hour and cost 42 yuan, or about $5-6. Once we got off the trains, there was chaos. There were hundreds of cabs waiting at the station with drivers shouting out "Hay-loo." Many of the cars seeming a bit shady, we decided to walk over to a street or two before catching a cab. Our ride back to the University cost 15 Yuan. We found out that the students who had caught cabs right at the station ended up paying about 40 Yuan.

Overall it was a good weekend in Beijing, though the weather on Saturday was a bit disappointing. The walk along the Great Wall alone was worth the time in the rain the rest of the time and the great weather on Sunday was an added bonus.

I wanted to leave a few parting notes on fast food in China...

The other night we were walking past a really nice looking restaurant and I was interested to find out what it was, when we got to the door, we were greeted with a large "Pizza Hut" sign.

Also, KFC is quite popular in China despite the fact that most people here could not actually point out the state of Kentucky on a map. In Beijing, you can't go more than a couple of blocks without seeing the Colonel's face smiling down on you. There is something both reassuring and quite funny about seeing him on every other street corner.

Finally, McDonald's most have saved tens of thousands of Americans abroad who at some point were desperate for a taste of something familiar. Though there are some different items on the menu, the double cheeseburger and french fries at McDonald's here taste just the same as they do at any Tallahassee McDonald's.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day

I know that I still owe everyone "Beijing Part 2" and I promise it is on the way. I had saved it on a different computer after the Internet went down on campus, but haven't been able to get to that computer since. It should be coming soon...

In the meantime, I wanted to take the chance to update everyone on our Independence Day festivities in China.

Yesterday for lunch, Janet, her room mate, and I decided to celebrate with a trip to Pizza Hut. Shortly after putting our names on the waiting list, we were led to a table. Our waitress (who spoke a little English) recommended the newest menu special, King Arthur's Feast, to us. I'm not entirely sure how many Chinese are familiar with the legend of King Arthur, but we thought it was amusing. We decided to pass on the escargot appetizer (I think I mentioned before that Pizza Hut here is upscale) and order the "American Special" also known as a large pepperoni pizza. Our pizza was very good, though unfortunately it costs about the same as a Pizza back home. We paid 70 Kuai (slang for Yuan or RMB, the Chinese currency) for our pizza, which is just under $10. While this doesn't seem like much, relative to many Chinese restaurants here it is fairly expensive, which has led to eating at Pizza Hut being somewhat of a status symbol.

Later that afternoon, we had a group Tai Chi lesson, which was surprisingly difficult to learn. Afterwards some of us joined a soccer game against a group of Chinese guys who we see out on the field each day. We didn't stand a chance, but it was fun to play.

Winded and tired from running around on the soccer field, it was time for a July 4th BBQ celebration. The school was nice enough to arrange a big feast for us with grilled kabobs and even a large birthday cake.

That night most of the students on our program were going to an American-style bar called Scooter's that was offering Independence Day specials. We tagged along and enjoyed listening to American music for the first time in about two weeks. Some kids had also managed to find firecrackers to set off in the street to celebrate.

Overall, it was a good 4th, if not quite the same as one in the States.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


After about 3 hours effort over the past two days, I've finally been able to post a few pictures from our trip to Beijing. A link to my picture website should be over on the right sidebar, so check them out. Sadly, there are not really any pictures from inside the Forbidden City as that was when it was raining the heaviest and we rushed through.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Beijing Part 1

Friday morning we left early for Beijing.

In Mandarin, "bei" means "north" and "jing" means "capital," so Beijing literally means "northern capital."

2000 or so years ago, when the Qin dynasty was first founded, their capital city was Xi'an. Xi'an was closer to central China, near the Yellow River. This was the major area of ancient Chinese civilization, sort of an Oriental Mesopotamia. Subsequent dynasties would move the capital of their empires and Nanjing or "south capital" served off-and-on as a capital city for a while until the selection of Beijing. That is somewhat simplified as the capital moved around depending on the dynasty in charge and the threat from outside forces. For more information, try -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_capitals_of_China .

When we arrived in Beijing, we first visited the Ming Tombs, home to the burial sites of 13 of the 16 emperors who ruled during the Ming dynasty. The walk to the tombs was guarded by stone carvings of warriors and both real and mythical animals. The tomb itself, was actually somewhat less impressive than the walk as everything that was originally inside has now been moved to museums. It was mainly a walk through an empty underground chamber with a box where the Emperor's coffin used to be and a stone throne that was placed in the tomb with him.

After leaving the tombs, we traveled to the Great Wall. It had been raining lightly all morning and luckily the rain stopped for our walk along the wall. The fog that was left after the rain made for a cool afternoon, though it made for lower visibility for pictures.

The Great Wall itself was very impressive. To me, it alone is worth a trip to Beijing. Outside of the city there are a few restored sections of the Great Wall that you can visit and we went to the most popular, Badaling Pass. This is the site where foreign dignitaries walk along the wall when they visit China. The wall is massive, stretching across the mountainous landscape for as far as the eye can see. We probably climbed along 3-4 miles (round trip) of the wall over a three hour period. At times the wall can be very steep, making climbing quite difficult. One section that we did not hike along is built at over a 60-degree incline.

So far, I've been having difficulty uploading pictures, but I hope to get some of the Great Wall up soon. Unfortunately, pictures alone are not really able to do justice to the wall and it is really something that you have to see for yourself to understand the scale of it.

After eating dinner, we checked into the four-star TianTan Hotel (near the Temple of Heaven, which is currently undergoing renovation). The hotel was extremely nice and a great break from the bare accommodations of our dorms. There was actually a large bath tub and toilet (where you could flush the toilet paper) in addition to somewhat comfortable beds where we could enjoy a good night's sleep after a long day.

To be continued...