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!

 

 

That time we got eaten by a dragon…

So Jess and I combined our birthday celebrations into one really fun weekend (our birthdays are two weeks apart). We kicked it off Friday night with some drinks on the outside patio at Blue Frog, one of our favorite restaurants, got massages, dinner at a tiny Japanese place where they wrap up your vegetables in bacon (really the only way veggies should be eaten) and booked a day trip to LongQingXia.

LongQingXia, or LongQing Gorge, is a couple hours’ bus ride out of the city center. It’s a man-made lake in the valley of the surrounding mountains. Beijing has been really hot, but the mountains were nice and cool; it actually felt like fall. The entrance opens into a little park where we wondered around and took pictures:

The path led us to a waterfall created by the dam above us. To the right, a massive dragon clung to the mountainside. It’s one of the things Longqing is known for-the dragon’s body conceals a series of escalators going up to the lake. It’s a pretty cool sight. To get up to the top of the dam we literally walked into the dragon’s mouth:

From the dock at the top of the stairs we took a boat further down the lake to a large park and wandered around for a while

Jess handed me her camera to get a picture, then happened to look up and notice the spiders above her:

After lunch, the ferry took us back to the main dock, where you can take a cable car up to the top of the mountain.

Once the cable cars brought us back to the top of the dam, we went down the slideway. They had toboggans that go down this zig-zag path to the park entrance area. We rode the flying swings amusement park ride, snacked, took the bus back to Beijing, then decided we’d done enough walking to justify dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. All in all, it was a great birthday weekend!

July 25, 2017

I know, it’s been an absurdly long time. I was busy with end of school things and when I finally got through that I was just exhausted and didn’t feel like writing. But I’m home in Kansas City at the moment for a visit so it’s time for a long overdue update.

To begin with, my flight home was an adventure in and of itself. I took off work a couple days early, after two solid weeks of helping to write curriculum and planning lessons, so I could have a full month away from China. Got to the airport early on the 12th, checked in, no problems, my flight actually boarded on time, which is practically unheard of for BCIA (Beijing Capital International Airport). And then we sat. And sat. First, because of BCIA air traffic control. This is normal as it’s the second busiest airport in the world; there’s usually a line to get off the ground. But while we were waiting there was a loud bumping and shaking underneath us in the back of the plane. So then we waited for maintenance to check it out. And for them to fix one of the air conditioners which had broken. Did I mention it’s been over 100 degrees in Beijing? Yeah. Eventually they let people go back to the gate for about 20 minutes. When everything was fixed they reboarded everyone and about 10 minutes after we got in our seats they announced that we couldn’t take off because the crew’s time had expired. So, back off the plane, through immigration to get our exit stamps canceled, customs, and then we were all rebooked on another flight the next morning and shuttled to a nearby hotel for the night.

It wasn’t all bad though because I met some fun people and got to hang out with them at the hotel and while we were waiting around the airport the next morning. The hotel was really nice and the airline took care of everything, rooms, food, transportation, rebooking flights. My trip was a little more complicated because I actually had two round trip tickets, one from Beijing to Boston (with a stop in San Francisco) and another from Boston to KC (with a stop in Chicago). It was cheaper for whatever reason (I will never understand airline logic) to fly from Beijing to San Francisco to Boston to Chicago to Kansas City, than it was to fly from Beijing to Kansas City with a stop in San Francisco. And my youngest brother is in Boston so I thought it would be great to stop and see him on my way back to Beijing. But I didn’t particularly want to stop in there on my way to KC; it’s just always cheaper to book round trip tickets than one-way. So it was a bit of a hassle to reschedule my connecting flights.

The next morning we got back to the airport and were delayed again. Because they tried to put us on the same plane, again. And the air conditioner was broken, again. One of the crew had told us that this particular plane was supposed to be decommissioned last September. I’m not feeling very confident at this point… Eventually they told us to move to another gate and we boarded a different plane there. The people who were already at that gate got sent back to our gate to wait for that plane to be fixed…I hope they made it off the ground but I have my doubts. And all this running around made us miss our newly rescheduled connections in SF. Which would have made me miss my next connection in Boston. When I explained everything to the ticket agent though he was super helpful, and instead of making me fly halfway across the country and back he got approval to change my ticket to go from SF to Kansas City and skip Boston altogether. So despite leaving Beijing 26 hours late, I still got home the same day I planned.

There was a time when this kind of chaos would have sent me into a panic or angered me but the more I travel, the more I’m able to brush these things off. There were some people on the flight who were hopping mad and screaming at the gate agents and I just had to roll my eyes. Is it an annoyance? Sure. I get frustrated too sometimes. But is it worth screaming about? Screaming at people who have no more control over it than you do? In the scheme of things, does it really matter? I like to make plans-I have books full of notes and schedules and to-dos-but I also know things don’t go according to plan all time, or even most of the time. It’s the unexpected things that sometimes end up being the most memorable, good or bad. So what I remember about this trip is that I got to finish two books I’d been meaning to read while I was waiting. I got to have a nice dinner and interesting conversation with Baynie from Las Vegas and Meredith and Ben from Wisconsin, who gave me some great ideas of places to visit when I finally take my cross-country road trip, hopefully next year. I got to soak in a hot bath and get a good night’s sleep in a hotel that I can’t even afford-for free. I’ll remember the chatty business lady who flies back and forth to China every other month (didn’t catch her name), that befriended us at the hotel and later, when she saw us stuck in the check in line at the airport, went and bought us all her favorite breakfast rolls to eat while we waited. I’ll remember the friendly flight attendant who asked all about my life in China, kept us all updated on what was going on, and even tried to help me find a different connecting flight on her phone while we were waiting. And I’ll remember the ticket agent in San Francisco who could have told me that I had a non-changeable flight, as three previous representatives had, but instead spent half an hour on the phone with his corporate headquarters trying to upgrade my ticket and finding me a way to get home as soon as possible. People are people, anywhere you go, and people are generally nice if you’re nice to them. Most of things I hear folks complaining about could be solved with a smile and a simple “please and thank you”.

I had another situation in June when I went to Macau for my visa run. I usually go to Hong Kong but I wanted a change. And if I’d flown directly into Macau it probable would have been fine, but I also wanted to see Zhuhai, on the mainland, because I’d heard it was beautiful-one of the cleanest cities in China. So I planned to fly to Zhuhai after work on a Friday, crash, get up early and go the port, where you can walk through the immigration building into Macau on the other side. Solid plan. Except my flight was delayed and I didn’t get to Zhuhai’s little airport until almost 2am, when we were the last flight in and almost everything was shut down. I had booked a room online at a hotel near the airport, and stopped at the information desk to ask the only employee in sight how to get there. She didn’t recognize it, but called the number on my booking to ask them for me, since no one spoke English there. Turns out, the hotel did not accept foreigners, only Chinese people. This isn’t unheard of in China-either they didn’t want to deal with foreigners or they couldn’t accept foreign passports. (Some places require a 15 digit Chinese ID number.) At any rate, I was stranded with very little money, and would get my refund until later in the week. The girl at the information desk was a little lost too, but she pulled out her phone and between her English and my Chinese, and a really good translation app, managed to explain what was going on. By this time a curious security guard was hovering around trying to help too. He suggested a hotel nearby where airline staff stayed and they helped me call to book a room. Then the girl called her friend who also worked at the airport and had a car, and I waited a few minute until they got off work at 3am, then they drove me to the hotel, walked me in and negotiated a lower price with the girl at the desk, and made sure I was all set before they went home. I’m so grateful for people like that; they make the journey worthwhile. And I got to have a good time in Zhuhai (which was beautiful) and Macau:

I wanted to post some last pictures of my kids, too-I had some adorable ones of them in their little graduation cap and gowns-but I can’t find them! I need to get my computer organized. The last month of school was a blast though-we did experiments with eggs, trying different ways to wrap them and then throwing them off the roof (only one broke!) to see which was strongest, making baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, movie day, art projects, making a class book and just playing games. I’m going to miss those guys but I’m excited for next year. At least, I think I’m better prepared for next year.

I’m just enjoying being home for now and seeing family and friends. My driver’s license expired about a year and a half ago while I was out of the country. And since it had been expired over 6 months I had to retake the whole test. I had attempted this when I was home in December and failed the driving exam so I was actually nervous this time. I know how to drive; it’s like riding a bike. But I can’t stand being judged. I had a death grip on the wheel the whole time, and the examiner looked about 22 years old, which was annoying. But I passed! It feels good to drive again. I’ve been hanging out in the pool, playing with my dogs, and revisiting some of my favorite places. Definitely experiencing some reverse culture shock though. When I first moved to China I would automatically convert everything I bought into dollars; now I convert everything I buy in the States to RMB, and it hurts. Oh it hurts. Prices here seem outrageous to me. My mom is coming with me visit my brother in Boston when I leave KC. She booked our hotel last night at one of the cheaper places available, and the price of two nights there would cover accommodation, food, transport, and activities for two weeks in most places in Asia. And the choices here are overwhelming. I spent like an hour and a half in the grocery store the other day. Most the shops I go to in Beijing might have 5-10 different options for something, say, ice cream; here there is a mile-long aisle devoted to it. In a way it’s nice, but there’s also something ridiculous about it. We drive to places I would just walk to in Beijing. Life here seems foreign now.

Shanghai

Took me a while to get all these uploaded, but here’s some photos from our trip to Shanghai last weekend. We flew down after work Friday and got really lucky with seats in the back of the plane. We had an empty seat between us so we put the tray down in the middle seat and played cards for a while. It’s a short flight, maybe two hours, so we arrived in Shanghai after 11:30pm. The line for taxis was at least a quarter mile long-not even exaggerating. From my experience with airport taxis in Beijing I thought we would be waiting for a couple hours. But the Hongqiao Airport was pretty impressive. They had hundreds of taxis waiting, were super organized, and we were out of there in 20 minutes. We had rented an Airbnb place but didn’t realize how far apart things were. The host had messaged us and told us it would take almost two hours to get to the house from the airport and we’d have to take a cab since there was no public transportation that late. So instead she offered to let us stay with her and her husband at their apartment in the center of the city, only about 20 minutes from the airport. They met us downstairs and got us settled in, giving us some ideas for things to do and how to get around. I haven’t had a bad experience with Airbnb yet, but this one really stands out. Mickey and Jackie were super welcoming and even walked us to the bus stop the next morning so we could find this cool bookstore we had heard about.

We spent the morning exploring around the city center, then went to wharf to catch a sightseeing boat up and down the HuangPo river. The view from the center of the river was great; lots of cool buildings to see. We passed the historic Bund area too.

After the boat, we got a late lunch and wandered around a bit more, then found the theater where we were going to see Wicked.

After the show we got a cab to the Airbnb place we originally booked; a small traditional hutong house on the outskirts of the city-near the old town. We crashed immediately, then got up early to explore the old city before catching our flight. The area was absolutely perfect for a relaxing morning stroll, very charming and historic.

And on a completely unrelated note, made this cool poster with my kids this week (we started a unit on tolerance):

Also survived this crazy sandstorm!

 

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Walking with Elephants-Check!

What an amazing week! After years of wanting to visit Chiang Mai, Thailand, I finally got to cross it off my list. First I have to say I loved the place I stayed-Enchanted Garden Bungalows. I found it on Airbnb.com and they were awesome. I had a little bamboo cabin all to myself, surrounded by the gardens. I got to do my homework on the wraparound porch outside and listen to the waterfall. And swim in the heated saltwater pool every day!

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cm3This place was set outside of Chiang Mai a bit so it was nice and quiet, and I enjoyed walking around the small village. Nearly all the houses I passed had small shrines set up, there were tiny open-air restaurants and markets, even cows wandering around.

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Love the bright colors of this school!

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Enjoyed this beautiful little coffee shop as well-

The number one thing on my list was to go see elephants so I did that first thing Tuesday. I went with a tour about 1.5 hours outside the city to a small elephant farm. I got a recommendation from the resort’s activities director, Janie, as to a good one, as many are too touristy or abusive. There was no riding elephants and they seem to only follow voice commands (or food bribes)-no hitting.

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The scenery up in the hills was beautiful!

cm2We got to prepare food-sugarcane, bananas, and pumpkins-to feed the animals and walked around visiting them for a while. It was a small farm-3 adults and 2 calves, Mina (3 years) and Milo (only 1 year). They eat so much! The adults can pick up half a pumpkin, rind and all, and toss it in their mouths.

Milo was too cute! He had fun splashing in the water and chasing people. (He has to wear a bell around his neck so people hear him coming.) He ran up to headbutt me when we walked in to the yard. The caretakers cautioned us not to push back and just sort of sidestep him so he doesn’t get to forceful. He was so playful and fun to watch though.

After we fed them we ate lunch, then walked the elephants down a steep path to the river for their bath. That was fun. Unfortunately I have no pictures since I was up to my neck in cold, muddy river water! I loved watching them though. We could barely stand up in the strong current but the babies were just rolling around splashing. It was such an amazing experience! (Yeah, you’re gonna get a lot of exclamation points this time. Too bad.

Next stop-The Little Kitchen Thai Cooking School. This was an awesome place. There were a lot of other cooking schools in Chiang Mai but I would absolutely recommend this one-and it was only a 2 minute walk from the resort. Each student gets to pick 5 dishes to make from their menu and they have most of the ingredients all prepped-I felt like I was on a cooking show! Delicious food, too.

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My favorite dish-pineapple fried rice!

I spent one day just walking around the downtown area and going through all the temples and shops. It was a beautiful day for it, too. The clouds almost look fake, but no editing, I swear! I walked all over the place, bought many, many (too many) things, then got a 60 minute foot massage for 200 baht (about $5.67!)

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Monks painting in front of one of the temples

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The iced coffee is some of the best I’ve had, and pad thai (noodles)=yum!

It was seriously hard to make myself come back to Beijing Friday but I managed. Sometimes I’m surprised at how far I’ve come. I had an overnight layover in Kunming, southern China, on the way back. I booked the cheapest hotel I could find close to the airport. I took the free shuttle, which was really a small van with a dozen people and suitcases piled on top of us. The hotel was in an area that might have horrified me a year ago but after all the traveling I’ve done I wasn’t even phased (and it was super comfortable, especially for US$45/night). I just threw my bags in the room and went out for a late 8 kuai dinner from a street vendor.

I can’t believe it’s almost mid-October now. Beijing got a bit chilly while I was gone; my toes have been freezing all day! But I love the crisp fall weather. And in just over 2 months I’ll be home for Christmas. This year is going even faster than the last one. I might have to stay a third…