Happy Birthday China!

October 1st is China’s National Holiday; this year marks the 69th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Every year, the entire country gets a week off to celebrate. Which sounds nice, right? But it’s the entire country. At the same time. And for many people it’s the only vacation time they have, so the result is millions of people trying to hit the same hundred or so tourist spots at the same time. It’s insanely crowded and horrifying. Beijing was fairly quiet for the first half of the week because most people leave the city to travel elsewhere. But then they come back…

Anyway, Jess and I stayed home, partly because we wanted to avoid the madness, mostly because we had no money to go anywhere. We managed to explore a bunch of new places though. And the weather was spectacularly clear and blue, just cool enough to be considered fall.

Otherwise, we were pretty much our tea-drinking, scrabble-playing, movie-binging, junk food-eating selves all week. It was kind of fun just being lazy.

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We don’t exactly follow the traditional rules, but we did manage to use all the tiles!

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…

September 20, 2016

Let’s see, where did I leave off? Ah yes, bike is now fixed, debit card once again retrieved, new phone purchased. Still loving my new job. They may drive me crazy sometimes but I do love these guys. Last week I was in horrible mood when I got to work for some reason, but then April arrived and threw herself at me, demanding "hug me, hug me, hug me!"How can you stay grumpy around that all day?

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Not to mention Beijing has been spectacularly beautiful the past few weeks. Sunny and blue skies, starting to cool off slightly for fall.

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I’ve been getting out of Beijing into the suburbs a bit more: Shunyi, Maquanying, Chongping, lots of new areas for me, much quieter than the center of Beijing. Last weekend Jess got a job photographing a golf tournament for the British Chamber and I got to tag along. The course was at Chateau Lafitte, which was gorgeous, more like a European estate than anything you’d expect to see in China. We had one of the guys on staff chauffeuring us around in a golf cart all day while we took photos. Fun day-

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Then this past weekend was a four-day holiday for the Mid-Autumn Festival so we headed to Hong Kong. I’ve been there several times now but usually just for a day or so on visa runs, enough time to get there and then turn around. This time we got out to explore the city and surrounding areas. We actually stayed out on one of the islands-Cheung Chau-about a 45 minute ferry ride from Hong Kong island.

Cheung Chau is a really small island, we walked most of it trying to find our Airbnb place, but with a population of 50,000 or so. It still had a small-town feel though. As we were wandering around looking lost we were stopped by a woman, Michelle, who attempted to help us find the apartment but ended up having to call her husband, Michael, a local postmaster, who actually came to meet us. The place was a little confusing and at one point we had about 10 people gathered around us discussing loudly in Cantonese whether we were in the right place! But we got there eventually, waaay up in the hills. The view was worth it though:

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The next morning we got up early and got the ferry to Hong Kong. We checked out the Stanley Market area, where I found a beautiful jade ring and got a spectacular sunburn on the beach. It’s bad. Last time I got burned Jess informed me that I looked like a strawberry donut. After the beach? “You look like a f$%#@* tomato tree…vine…something.” You can always count on your best friend to be honest. The beach was beautiful though, not too horribly crowded. Then we walked around Hong Kong Park, which was gorgeous, and free, a key consideration for us on our travels. There’s a huge aviary and a conservatory inside as well that we visited.

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I loved this fountain and even liked the picture of me Jess managed to snap-

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All this to kill time until the night markets opened. And then, oh, the shopping! There’s so many different markets, with things everywhere. I couldn’t resist some more jewelry and presents. Then we caught the ferry back to Cheung Chau.

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wp-image-1038936548jpg.jpgWe had some vague plans to go back and explore more on Saturday but were too exhausted, so we spent the day touring our little island, which had more than its share of shops and street vendors, tiny private beaches, and narrow twisty alleys to explore.

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Totally common sight to see people hanging their fish out to dry on their balcony alongside the laundry.

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wp-image-1913210770jpg.jpgIt was so nice to have a new place to explore. There’s such an interesting feel to Hong Kong, different from places I’ve been in mainland China. More international, more accepting, people from all over the world. There are so many languages being spoken everywhere, but primarily English-nearly every person we spoke to knew at least a little. And Cheung Chau feels more like a Caribbean Island than anything else.

Also, I’m super excited because I finally booked my trip to Thailand during National Holiday-only 12 days left! And, thanks to my parents, I have a plane ticket booked to come home for two weeks around Christmas, too. Hoping to get Shanghai checked off my list before then as well. My goal is to travel as much as possible this year and book a  trip for every Chinese holiday. I have vague plans for India and Vietnam during the two-week New Year’s break in February so we’ll see how that shapes up.

October 13, 2015

This is going to be a very long, catch-up post, just warning you all in advance. I simply have not felt like writing lately and my internet is terrible so I have a lot of photos stockpiled here.
For starters, Beijing and I are getting along a little better this week. We still have our problems,the internet is driving me up the wall, but look at that pretty blue sky! (On the right-I don’t know what the hell was going on on the left. It was unpleasant, let’s leave it at that.)

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Last week vs this week

A couple days makes a big difference. I doubt it will last long but the last couple days have been beautiful, breezy, sunny fall days. I got some nice bike rides in too.
I started a new class-first grade level. I love all my preschool kids but I can only teach face/colors/letters/animals so many times before my brain starts to atrophy. It’s a nice break. We have longer classes and get to do math and science classes in addition to language. A couple weeks ago we learned about different tastes in science and I brought in a bunch of stuff for them to do taste test experiments.

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G1 taste tests…Bourne did not like cranberries!

Anyway, it’s cool to actually teach for a change. My other classes are more like babysitting half the time. We usually have fun but it’s exhausting.

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I did get a nice long break though. Mid-Autumn festival fell on the Sunday before National Day here. It’s a sort of harvest festival celebration, held the 15th day of the eighth lunar month every year, at the full moon. I was drowning in moon cakes, which is the traditional food for Mid-Autumn festival-little round pastries filled with all kinds of fillings: red bean, date, green tea, lotus seed, sweet potato, berries. Each province has different styles. There’s an interesting article about them here.

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Several of my kids brought me some, some very elaborately packaged and wrapped.
National Day was the same week, on October 1. This is the anniversary of the founding of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) in 1949. The whole week afterward is one of the Golden Weeks. The other one is in January/February for Chinese New Year’s. Everyone gets the week off and most people travel. I stayed in Beijing since, A) ticket prices were double what they normally are, and B) everything was absurdly overcrowded. Millions of people hit the road during this week. Beijing was not nearly as bad as Hong Kong or Shanghai-there was a 50 lane traffic jam on the expressway between Hong Kong and Beijing when everyone was trying to return from holiday-it was insane! So, anyway, I stayed put and did some sightseeing around the city. Still busy but not too horrible. I finally got to see the Summer Palace:

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Inside the Summer Palace temple. Not the best shots but I was trying to be discreet with my phone as photos are not technically allowed in there. What can I say? I’m a rebel.

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DSC_0043Suzhou Street at the Summer Palace. It’s a narrow ledge walkway around the water, with lots of little shops, people dressed in traditional clothes, and crafts and jewelry.DSC_0019DSC_0029DSC_0034

The Marble Boat on Kunming Lake

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Apparently several thousand other people had the same idea as I did. Fortunately the crowds thinned out a little past the entrance area.

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I went to shop around Solana, a really upscale shopping area. So window shopping only.

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I also got to check out the 798 arts district, a whole neighborhood filled with galleries, artesian craft stores, coffee shops, and bars. Very cool area:

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Above clockwise: traveling with dogs in China, craft stalls, roasted sweet potatoes from a street vendor, and a demonstration by shoemakers. Below: 798 sightseeing.

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IMG_8775When Jess got back from her visit to the States we did some exploring around Nanlouguxiang and Andingmen and fell in love with this little shop. The owners take photos around China and other parts of Asia, then turn them into postcards and sell them. They sell stamps and have a small coffee bar so you can just sit in there and write. They sell all kinds of handmade goods too. It just feels really homey; their cat just roams around the place and dozes where he feels like it.

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My favorite is the lower right; it just is a perfect representation of something you see all over Beijing. Chinese people nap anywhere-park benches, Starbucks, it’s not unusual to see cab drivers snoozing in their cars with their feet dangling out an open window.

I sent out my first batch of postcards and have another stack I need to write. Lick on stamps haven’t arrived in China apparently, let alone self-stick, so we sat down with a bottle of glue.I’m hoping they arrive safely as the mail service in China seems a little dicey, as evidenced by the impromptu mail-sorting facilities I’ve stumbled across on sidewalks and in parking lots:

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Had a relaxing weekend, with Jess, of course, starting with drinks at a little courtyard patio bar Sunday afternoon, then a play at Chaoyang 9 Theater. Well the drinks were not so relaxing as they turned out to be fake alcohol. This is common in China (partly because it’s cheaper, but also because many Asian people can’t handle Western alcohol) but it was the first time I’d come across it. I only had two drinks and half an hour later had a massive headache. But I got off light-some people have worse reactions. The play was great though-The Taming of the Shrew, performed by TNT Theatre Britain. It was pretty funny.

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Then yesterday we did some more exploring, lunch (with some…interesting/disturbing menu options…), where we decided to be adventurous and got a spicy hot pot with quail eggs and bullfrog. It was surprisingly delicious. I’d never tried frog before but it was really tender, with the texture somewhere between chicken and fish. Then spent a few hours working on stuff at my favorite coffee shop.

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Lemon Chrysanthemum tea? Yum. Eel? Beef heart tube? Octopus balls? No thank you!

Slept in today, then cleaned and organized everything around me. Even set up an envelope system and budgeted money so I can save up for my next trip.

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Hong Kong in November for sure, and the Philippines for Chinese New Year. I’d also like to squeeze in a trip to Xi’an if I can. And Chengdu. And Thailand. And I’ve decided I’m definitely going to Spain after China, though I’m not sure when that will be. So I need to get to practicing my Spanish again. So much to do, so little time…