24 Hours in Xi’an

Well, I’m way behind in my writing, but I’ve had a lot going on. I’m going to try to catch up with two posts this weekend, so this first one is just my trip to Xi’an last month. It was short-Jess and I took the fast train out Saturday morning and back Sunday night (about 6 hours each way). But I got to see a lot of the things I’d been wanting to. I tried a well-known noodle dish from Xian, biang biang mian, and it was delicious. The noodles are made fresh at the restaurant and huge-like eating lasagna noodles!


Jess showed me all her favorite places around Muslim street-it’s actually a maze of streets with hundreds of little shops and street vendors. Some amazing and unique foods! We sampled way too much…


Sunday morning I got up early to catch the bus to the Terracotta Warrior site before Jess and I caught the train back to Beijing. I’ve been wanting to see these for years and it was well worth waiting for. It was still early when I got there and there weren’t many people around. It was eerie though; thick fog everywhere. I was wandering down all these paths through the park and could hardly see in front of my face! I wasn’t expecting such a huge complex. Each different excavation pit has a building built over it, with a new mausoleum/museum, and gift shops in between. Pit #1 has the most figures excavated and it was pretty incredible to see:


That’s all for now. I have some more news to post tomorrow though!

Beware the Eyes

Tianjin and Binhai

I’ve got a lot of things left to cross off my Beijing bucket list before I leave China. I know I’ll be back to travel more at some point but I don’t know when. So I’ve just been trying to do as many new things as possible before I go.

Recently Jess and I tried this new whisky bar near our house. I’ve never actually tried drinking whisky or really straight alcohol at all but it wasn’t bad. Mostly we just enjoyed the atmosphere-it’s super quiet and relaxing. The bartender let us smell a bunch of different bottles and made recommendations for us to try.

Last week, my friend Carol got tickets to an NHL game. I’ve never watched hockey in my life so when she asked me to go I was all “Sure, why not?”. Carol’s Chinese but her new husband is Canadian and now she’s on a mission to learn how to be Canadian 🙂 Neither one of us knew anything about the game but since it was Calgary vs. Boston we decided she’d cheer for Canada and I would cheer for USA (who won, btw!). Mostly we just had fun people watching. The goal of playing in China was to get Chinese audiences interested in the game before the next Olympics come to Beijing, so the organizers made a point of explaining the rules first since a lot of the viewers were new to the game. Every time there was a goal or a penalty they would post an explanation of what was going on up on the screen, which was really helpful to us. All sporting events should do this-I might be able to follow them!

Then this weekend Jess and I took our apple booth money and went to Tianjin. Tianjin is not far from Beijing-only about half and hour by high-speed train. Actually it took longer to get to and from the train stations than to take the actual train. Tianjin is a major city in its own right though; established in the 15th century, it’s the fourth-largest city in China with 13 million people. It just sort of sprawls along the Hai River to the coast, running into the newer city of Binhai. The library we wanted to see is actually in Binhai but we enjoyed exploring both cities. We found this cute park close to our hotel. There’s actually a lake in the middle but you can’t see any water because it’s completely covered with lotuses-thick enough to walk on.

The cities seem distinctly different despite being so close together. A lot of the buildings in Tianjin and Binhai are more European than the traditional Chinese style of Beijing. In some ways they feel more modern. The people, not so much. We get stared at all the time in Beijing and have more or less become accustomed to it, annoying as it is. Beijing has thousands of foreigners though so we’re not really such a strange sight. Tianjin, though, was awful. People would stop and gawk at us constantly, old people, children, one girl, about seven, walked up to our table in the coffee shop and stood about six inches away, just staring. I wanted to leave my backpack in a locker instead of carrying it around the library. The lockers were automated; you scan a code with your WeChat (WeChat is basically the only app in China), pay with your phone, and the locker opens. The app was entirely in Chinese but not that difficult to figure out, just took a few minutes. The whole time we’re standing there trying to use the app, this family gathers around us and starts staring. When the locker finally popped open they all gasp and start oohing and aahing like they were watching some kind of performance. It’s enough to make me want to scream sometimes.

The library was spectacular though. It’s known for the giant atrium with a sculpted sphere in the center, surrounded by stairs lined with books. Well, pictures of books-the atrium wasn’t approved by officials to house actual books. But surrounding the atrium is a five story library that houses 1.2 million books and people can bring them down to read on the steps. There are also several quiet study rooms.


The Tianjin-Binhai Library is well worth the trip just to ogle at the architecture and people-watch.


This Binhai skyscraper in progress looks like a rocket!

The ancient Culture Street in the center of Tianjin was an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours. To be honest, the street food may have been the biggest draw. Tianjin is home to my favorite street food-jingbing, an eggy crepe folded around a crispy wonton with spices and sauce.


After strolling around the culture street, we found the Tianjin Eye, a giant ferris wheel built atop one of the many bridges crisscrossing the river. It towers above everything around it and takes about half an hour to make a rotation. We were up higher than the apartment buildings surrounding us!


After dinner, we came back to take in the sunset views and see the riverfront all lit up at night.

Jess had read up on the nightlife and found that the Astor Hotel had a speakeasy type bar, called O’Hara’s, with drinks and jazz. It’s really tucked away so you have to ask away and the front desk clerk led us to a back hallway and showed us in. Their drinks were great and the atmosphere is cozy. We were too exhausted to stay and wait for the music to start but I want to go back, hopefully next month.

All in all, I’m mad I haven’t made time to go to Tianjin before now! It’s so close and such a nice change to be out of Beijing.

Will cook for train fare…

Last Friday night Jess’s school hosted a night fair; parents and staff could set up booths in the classrooms and parents and kids came to buy their homemade foods and crafts. Jess signed us up for an apple-themed booth and she made a bunch of applesauce and I made some individual apple pies and cheddar-apple muffins, and we went into business! We didn’t make a lot of money but we covered our costs and used the rest to book round-trip train tickets to Tianjin and hotel costs. We’re thinking about taking the show on the road and opening up a street-food cart to fund our travels (joking, joking). So keep an eye out for trip photos in a couple weeks!

Also just a few photos from our nursery rhyme lesson this week. We’re learning Humpty Dumpty so I decorated an egg-which I was quite proud of-then we incorporated some science and wrapped him up in tissues and marshmallows and balloons and threw him off the third floor balcony to see if he would break. In a surprising twist to the original story, he survived!

 

 

Hoi An

I was up bright and early Sunday to go explore Hoi An. Hoi An was once a busy trading port on the Thu Bon River and the river is still a big draw, with various tour boats and fishing boats everywhere. Tons of shops line both sides of the walk along the river and the whole place has such a cute, small-town feel; it was easy to walk everywhere. One of the things the city is known for is the tailor shops. There are more than 400 and they can make practically a whole new wardrobe overnight. One of my first stops Sunday morning was to Bebe’s, one of the best-known tailor shops. It was even more fun than shopping. You can look at pictures from their catalog or anywhere you find them, like Pinterest, and they’ll sketch out the items you like and make any changes you want, then you can pick from hundreds of fabrics. It’s relatively inexpensive but I never have money when I travel, so I only got one dress, but it was custom-made from Hoi An silk and still less than I would have spent walking into a shop at home and buying something similar. They had it finished 24 hours later so I could come back and try it on and the seamstress could make any adjustments. She finished the hem and it was ready to pick up Tuesday morning. I wish I could do all my shopping there! Afterwards, I just spent some time walking around the old town.

Monday morning I booked a tour/cooking class where we visited a local market, then took a boat downriver to Cam Thanh water coconut village. It’s a small fishing village at the edge of Hoi An. During wartime, soldiers and locals would hide here, but now they hive a thriving eco-tour business. From the large riverboat, we transferred to traditional woven basket boats, which were fun to float around in. Each boat had a local guide to row us around and show us how to weave grass, catch crabs and fish. I was in a boat boat with a girl named Haley from the U.K., and our guide was a sweet lady who must have been about 80. She spoke only a few words of English but would talk to us in Vietnamese and gestures, smiling the whole way. Her husband was in the boat rowing a couple ahead of us, and their son had his own boat as well.

After floating around for an hour or so, we were rowed over to a big open-air kitchen to prepare lunch. I liked the cooking class a lot. Sometimes, they are too touristy, more like demonstrations, but this one was really hands-on and the instructors knew a lot about the ingredient and could explain the technique. Hoi An is also known for its cuisine so it seemed like every restaurant in town offers cooking classes, but I would definitely recommend this one, especially since it includes the coconut boat tour.

When I got back, I rested up at my Airbnb and did some homework, then went out to see Hoi An at night, which was both wonderful and frustrating. The city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 to try to protect its culture, but it appears to have done the opposite. The streets are busy enough during the day, and just about everything in the old town area is now a shop or restaurant, which is bad enough, but at night the area is just flooded with tourists. It’s sad to see. I still enjoyed seeing all the lanterns and the small boats going out on the river, but I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more 10 years ago.

That said, the view on the river is amazing. I tried to narrow down my photos but it was hard! I got there just before sunset and stood on the bridge (with about 400 other people) to watch it go down.

Evidence of environmentalism was everywhere. Recycling bins, recycled planters, like the ones below, were really common, restaurants and vendors are cutting back on disposable items. The place where I got a breakfast smoothie one day had hollow wooden straws instead of plastic. All the fishermen and tour guides had nets in their boats to nab any bits of floating trash they came across in the river or sea.

cof

One question I’ve gotten more than once is how people act toward Americans, or were there still any signs of war. It seems that’s all Americans really know about Vietnam. It’s impossible to answer definitively; I only visited four cities and I certainly didn’t talk to every person in the country. I can only tell you what I saw and heard from others. I’m sure there are still people who hate us; I would, frankly. But I didn’t feel that at all. What I’ve read, what I had been told by other people I know who have been to Vietnam, is that Vietnamese people love Americans. I don’t know if I’d go so far, but I certainly found them all friendly and welcoming. (Of course, Vietnam now has a thriving tourism industry with Americans pouring money into it.) This article has a much more detailed perspective if anyone is interested. In general, they view us as just one more invader they conquered, the way they did China, Japan, France, and others. Others appreciate that we tried to help. There are likely as many opinions as there are Vietnamese people. Another factor is that many revere Ho Chi Minh, and took his words to heart when he told them to blame governments, not people, for their trouble. (Something we could all learn from right now.)

My hotel posted this list of facts about Vietnam I found interesting.

You don’t have to look far, though, to see that America has had a big impact on this small country. What we call the Vietnam War, they call the American War. On a tour of Hanoi, driving down the shaded road between Trúc Bạch Lake and the West Lake, the guide was sure to detail the account of John McCain crashing down in Trúc Bạch Lake and point out the small memorial of the event there. We went by Hoa Lo prison where the POWs were held. In souvenir shops there are t-shirts like this:

I found a vintage poster shop with replicas of propaganda ads from different eras. I just bought a few, but there were dozens and dozens featuring America, American soldiers, American presidents.

Everywhere I went, people would quote prices to me in USD. I find this completely useless since I now think in RMB, and I don’t even really do that when I travel. I exchange my cash, since my Chinese debit card doesn’t work outside China. I take the amount I have, divide it by how many days I’m staying in any given country, and that’s my daily allowance. I had roughly 1 million VND per day (about USD $44-a lot, compared to my usual budget; I probably could have gotten by with half) to spend. So shopkeepers waving me over to buy things, “Very cheap, only 5 US dollars”, meant nothing to me. I had to keep asking people to tell me the price in VND, which confused them. They assume all Americans must have money and simply didn’t believe me when I told them I couldn’t afford things. “Beautiful necklace, 20 dollars”. To most tourists, that’s nothing. To many Asians, and me, $20 is a lot of money. It doesn’t sound like it, but when I convert it to VND or RMB, my first thought was usually, “Are you crazy? I’m not paying that!” Most of my hotel rooms didn’t even cost $20 a night, and they were nice rooms! I suppose this pricing is helpful to most American tourists, but I didn’t encounter many of those; most were from Europe, China, New Zealand, or Australia. Still, it shows how pervasive our currency is, and our language. Nearly every person I encountered spoke English.

Street food is super cheap. Madam Khanh’s is one of the most popular Banh Mi vendors in Hoi An-every time I went by there was a line of people starting two doors down. I had to try it at least once. An eight-inch baguette stuffed with pate, grilled meat, and vegetables-extremely filling-set me back roughly eighty-five cents. It doesn’t get any better.

After 3 days in Hoi An, I left to spend a night in DaNang. Hoi An is so small it has no airport or train station, so you have to fly in to nearby DaNang, the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, and from there it’s nearly an hour’s drive to Hoi An. (However, even in a private car, the trip was only about $11.) I had a 6 am flight back to Hanoi Wednesday morning, so I thought it would be more relaxing to go back to DaNang around noon on Tuesday and spend the night there, instead of trying to get back from Hoi An so early Wednesday morning. It worked out well. My hotel was only a ten-minute drive from the DaNang airport and I was surprised to find it was only a five-minute walk to the beach. I got some lunch at a seafood restaurant (incidentally, this is the only time in my life I’ve ever gotten sick of seafood-I think I ate it for every meal in some form) and then spent a couple hours walking up and down. I covered every inch of me I could reach in sunscreen, rubbing it in to my skin, then added another layer on top so I looked like a mime. I added a hat, some sunglasses, and still got burned. Not as bad as I usually do though. The sand was actually sparkling with some sort of gold mineral mixed with black, and there were tide pools everywhere, some up to my knees, and light was reflecting everywhere. It was a beautiful day, and the beach was relatively quiet. I’m sure it’s more crowded on the weekend, and in a few more years it will be unbearable touristy, as seems to be the trend in Asia currently. For now though, it’s perfect.

I had one more night in Hanoi before flying back to Beijing Thursday. I spent most of the afternoon wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake again, enjoying the sights. I found a rooftop cafe overlooking the lake and the busy central square and was kind of mesmerized by the flow of traffic. Everybody just keeps moving at their same pace, dancing around each other. There are so many motorbikes! The government taxes cars between 100% and 200% person, so most people use bikes. I have seen a mom and grandma with four kids on a bike, two guys carrying a 6’x4′ framed mirror on a bike while going down the highway around 55mph, fruit vendors with baskets and bundles piled up on the seat behind them. I’m constantly amazed by the innovations people come up with.

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

I just thought I’d share a brief history of Thanksgiving with all my friends and family across the world on this occasion. Disclaimer: I threw this together in 20 minutes before my kids arrived this morning, it was done entirely from memory, any resemblance to people, places, or things, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, yada yada yada, yes there are stereotypes, I have the illustration skills of a second grader, and it was intended for 5 year ESL kids who have the attention spans of a fruit fly with ADHD, so yeah, let’s not take it too seriously. But I was trying to explain briefly what Thanksgiving was and keep their attention:

TheFirstThanksgiving

Then we all made Thanksgiving lunch. Turkey isn’t really available but we roasted chicken and the kids mashed potatoes and made instant stuffing and pumpkin pie. I made some green beans and we ordered some canned cranberries online. The kids had never had them but they loved everything!

After lunch-which the kids inhaled-they were a little dopey. Which worked in my favor actually. We watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and I took them outside to enjoy some crisp fall air. It’s been beautiful the last few days.

My little drama queen, Raina!

Alisha is a ham, always performing, loves the camera

Super active boys-George in the background, and Bentley in the blue jacket. Bentley is such a sweetheart. He knew maybe five words of English when he started this year and he’s younger than the other kids so I wasn’t sure he’d keep up. But he learns amazingly fast, knows all his letters and numbers and asks me questions in English now. He’s so polite too!

Beautiful, but icy cold. Winter is either mild and smoggy, or freezing and clear. The same arctic winds that come down to clear away the smog also cause a major temperature drop. It’s also unbelievably dry. I took my sweater off earlier and it nearly electrocuted me. At night, my sheets actually throws of sparks in the dark room anytime I move. Crazy!

Tonight Jess and I went to a Thanksgiving buffet at EAST hotel. Their food is always amazing: ham, lamb, turkey, all kinds of side dishes, salads, and seafood, fruit, wine, beer, soda included. It’s a popular holiday spot for expats. Two Thanksgiving dinners in one day though-bad idea. I think I’ll go into hibernation now. Work tomorrow sounds awful.

chocolate bread pudding, apple & raisin pie, red velvet cake

cake, walnut pie (like pecans, but pecans aren’t common here), and black forest cake 

Yesterday we talked about gratitude and made a Gratitude Tree. The kids wrote all the things they’re grateful for on leaves-mom, dad, flowers, butterflies, cake, eggs, friends, eyes… Then they glued them to the tree trunk:

I’m way behind on this blog! Later this weekend I’ll catch up and post about our trip to South Korea. For now, here’s a few pictures from our field trip to the aquarium last week:

Then we read the Rainbow Fish and made our own rainbow fish to go with the story, since we’re learning about caring as our character trait, and different habitats in science. They turned out really cute!

Trip Announcement!

I’m excited to announce my Winter 2017/2018 Trip Itineraries! I just booked my last tickets this afternoon: October 27-29-Busan, South Korea; December 16-23- Zurich, Switzerland; December 26-29-Xi’an, China; and finally, February 10-22-Delhi and Agra, India. So stayed tuned for some stories!

Otherwise, it’s been an uneventful week. For science class, we’ve been learning about the 5 senses so I did a taste test experiment Thursday and let kids try different tastes: lemons for sour, coffee and super dark chocolate for bitter, cookies and sugar cubes for sweet, salt water (salty), and spicy beef jerky (spicy).

I also thought I’d share these paintings. The kids were supposed to be drawing elephants from this story their art teacher read them. These were the results; I’m a little concerned about the last one.

Friday night Jess and I held our Second Annual Halloween Movie Binge. Hocus Pocus, Nightmare Before Christmas, black bean and bacon chili, corn bread, and apple crisp. We even did some pumpkin carving.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

This upcoming week is the Mid-Autumn Festival/National Holiday, so we have a week off. It’s the only reason I’ve survived so long. No travel plans unfortunately. For the holiday I least. Jess and I just booked a weekend trip to Busan at the end of October though. Other than that we’re just saving money for our New Year’s trip to India. But there’s a lot of places in and around Beijing I still haven’t seen so I’ll do some exploring here.

Kiki went to her hometown for the holiday and sent everyone who works for her a Tianjin specialty-hairy crabs. Live crabs. 15 of them. Seafood is always super fresh here-literally still swimming. Instead of bags of frozen fish and shrimp, the supermarkets have aquariums with every possible variety of seafood splashing around. The market near my house is one of the best in the city and I always tell myself I’m going to learn how to cook live seafood but I haven’t brought myself to do it quite yet. But now I have these crabs and either they’re going to be dinner or I’m going to have to put a plastic wading pool in the middle of the living room and give them all names. I’ll let you know when I decide.

Also, they didn’t get delivered until after 10 tonight and Jess and I were both ready for bed so we look a little crazy, and Jess’s camera work goes a bit spazy at the end, but it’s still funny: