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Epic Summer Adventure Part 3: Tongren

After two days in Xining and the Qinghai Lake area (definitely enough time), Amber and I departed for Tongren. The facts…

Tongren county 同仁县, Longwu town 隆务镇

Population: 21,000 (34% Tibetan)

Elevation: 2500 m (8200 ft)

The bus took around 4 hours and passed through some pretty stunning territory. So far, this part of China was a whole different kind of beauty.

Blue sky! And real clouds!!

Strangely, the bus had assigned seats, so Amber ended up sitting next to a monk. After he asked for a picture of her on his phone, we figured it was alright  for him to return the favor.

Long-distance buses ftw!

Long-distance buses ftw!

Since Amber and I were trying to play this trip as loosey-goosey as possible (minus my Excel spreadsheet that was really just a guideline, I promise), we hadn’t made any hostel reservations in Tongren. When we showed up, we just walked around town in search of a hostel mentioned in a copy of Lonely Planet we had wrangled up in Xining. Unfortunately, the hostel looked like it had been shut down for the past year, so our prolonged search for a place to sleep began.

As is the norm throughout China, only certain hotels are allowed by the government to have foreigners, so the first two places we checked out told us they didn’t have room–I guess a face-saving way to tell us they weren’t allowed to let us stay there. The next couple of hotels were redonk expensive (over 200RMB per night), and we were tired of walking all around town. I looked up another hotel on my phone, called Holiday Inn, and gave them a call. They said they had a double room available for 120RMB per night–shazam!

But in the end, it was too good to be true. When we showed up, she told me that the rate was in fact 200 per night (foreigner rate, obviously). I was somewhat flattered that she didn’t automatically assume I was a foreigner on the phone, but more of me was peeved over the sudden price jump. In any case, we were done carrying our backpacks all around town.

With nothing to do for the rest of the day, we got some tasty noodles that I had never seen before.

Huimian

烩面, not as spicy as it looks.

Full of noodles, we stopped at the next-door convenience store for some beer, but were so intrigued by “barley wine” that we gave it a go instead. Little did we know that this was a horrible mistake, and that we would take a sip, grimace, take another sip just to make sure, then dump it all out.

We were such optimistic fools.

We were such optimistic fools.

Anyway, over the course of the day, we went back to our hotel, left again for dinner, fruitlessly searched for a bar listed in Baidu Maps, bought some beers at an outdoor BBQ place, and sat outside at a plastic table. Eventually, lo and behold, two foreign women came walking toward us!

Tongren is a small town, and needless to say, seeing other foreigners was a rare thing indeed. We invited them to sit with us, and before we knew it, we had Traveling Buddies. They were sisters from California, going from Sichuan northward through Qinghai and Gansu in the opposite direction we were. But they were looking to go to a temple the next day, so why not do it together?

Drinking Chinese beer out of plastic cups with tiny handles. Classy as fuck.

Drinking Chinese beer out of plastic cups with tiny handles. Classy as fuck.

While sitting there, drinking, and chatting, I happened to “look around” on Amber’s WeChat, an uber popular instant messaging program used in China. I started talking to a Chinese guy (in Chinese) who was within 1km of us and convinced him to come by and say hi. He ended up driving up in a nice SUV, got out, and seemed slightly disappointed that the one who had been typing to him in Chinese for the past hour was me and not Amber :/ Still, we talked for a bit, and surprise! When he left, he sneaked away to the BBQ owner and paid our bill. Thanks, guy!

The next day, the four of us finally did touristy things like go to Wutun Monastery. We had heard rumint of a bus out to the monastery, but quite frankly, a taxi was easier and only a little more expensive. It was a cool, drizzly day, and there wasn’t much happening there.

Proof.

Case in point.

However, the cool thing wasn’t really the temple–it was the monk and civilian artists in and around the temple. These guys were making tangka, gorgeous Tibetan paintings MADE OF GOLD.

Srsly impressed.

Srsly impressed.

According to the monks we talked to, tangka take MONTHS to paint, and these guys work for 8 or 10 hours a day. The gold-colored paint they use is 94% gold, while the green paint is only 76% gold. A tiny tangka will put you back at least 300RMB. Easy to see why!

After we walked all the way back to town along a muddy dirt road and almost went deaf from every car passing us that insisted on honking right next to us, we got some delicious lunches of Chinese “casserole,” as the signs said.

砂锅 Not your Mom's casserole.

砂锅 Not your Mom’s casserole.

The rest of the day was chill, as we went to a tea house for some tea and brews, got ripped off (pretty standard), and watched some Chinese dramas in our hotel room while making up our own dialogue. Another decent travel day, with some spontaneous travel companions!

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Posted by on October 7, 2013 in Travel, Uncategorized, Western China

 

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Epic Summer Adventure Part 2: Qinghai Lake FTW!!

Qinghai Lake Guys

Meet the Qinghai Lake posse. Maybe you’re wondering how a couple American girls ended up at the largest lake in China (and a saltwater lake, to boot!) with a bunch of older Chinese men? Gather ’round, and I will share with you a tale of adventure on the inland seas. First, some facts:

Qinghai Lake

Elevation:3,205 m (10,515 feet)

Surface Area: 4,489 km2 (1,733 sq mi)

Known for: huge bike races and bird migrations

Amber and I were initially a little wary of making the journey from Xining to Qinghai Lake, after hearing someone at the hostel’s account of her time there: cold, drizzly, with lots and lots of fog. She could barely even see the lake. But looking to the skies and hoping for the best, Amber and I set out.

As was the case with most of our bus rides in Xining, I managed to get us lost on our way to the long-distance bus station to catch a ride over to the lake. We ended up taking a taxi, and the driver told us a billion reasons why it was a horrible day to go to the lake… but if we still wanted to go, he would take us for only 700RMB (over $100). Obviously, that wasn’t happening.

Literally just a few moments after we stepped out of the taxi at the bus station, a driver approached us and offered to take us to the lake immediately for 120RMB per person. Um… YES! I was afraid that we would have to spend all morning bargaining down to a decent price, but fate smiled upon us that day.

We walked over to his van and got in… and were greeted by six older Chinese guys. They were obviously professionals of some type, and they were now stuck with two twenty-something American girls. OK. This would be interesting.

Beginning our 2-ish hour journey to Qinghai Lake, we went through the normal topics of conversation (“Where are you from? Why are you in China? How can you speak Chinese so horribly?”) Suddenly, the guy sitting in the front with the driver, who seemed to be the other guys’ leader, turned back and asked “So, do you think you understand China?”

I didn’t even know how to answer the question, let alone imply that I understood this gigantic, mysterious, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately fascinating country. I eventually said no, of course, and that I would need to spend a lifetime here to even begin to understand. He seemed satisfied and turned back to talk to the driver. As to the other men’s identities, all I got from them was that they were coworkers on their way to Tibet on vacation, and that they were originally from Jilin in the northeast.

After a couple hours, we started seeing huge fields of rapeseed used for honey production.

Is this really China?

Is this really China? Amazingsauce.

We made a couple pit-stops along the way for a lunch break, photo opportunities, and so the guys could take pictures with a camel (no, really).

Such tourists.

Such tourists.

After much toil and legs cramping in the van, we finally made it! Behold, the largest lake (salty or otherwise) in China! And with mostly clear skies and perfect temperatures, we couldn’t have asked for a better day.

It's a lake!

It’s a lake!

Note the awesome desert in the background, and most importantly, how few people were mingling on the shore. Our driver took us to an “unofficial” beach at the lake, so admission was cheap and crowds were small. And, best part, with so few people, it was quite easy to sneak away and… skinny dip. The water was in fact salty, and all of the rocks were covered with goop (a more innocuous word for slime/industrial sludge/etc.) We bought some cool scarves that conveniently converted into beach towels and head coverings.

Seriously one of my favorite photos of all time.

Seriously one of my favorite photos of all time.

Best part: after our little dip in the lake, the driver noticed that my hair was wet. He asked me if we had gone swimming, and I said we had… without clothes on. No joke, he started bounding toward the water and suggested that we all go swimming together. Ummmmm maybe next time?

With exhaustion, dehydration, clouds, and serious elevation headaches coming on, we just made a quick stop at the South Mountain to get some panoramic views of the lake and listen to the sheep.

The sheep were thunderous.

The sheep were thunderous.

And on this mountain, the identities of our fellow Qinghai Lake tourists were revealed! I kept asking them what they did, and they kept answering me “zhongyiyuan.” I obvs didn’t have a clue what that meant, but after a quick dictionary search, I was dumbfounded. These men were in the People’s Congress. They were full-on, red-blooded Communists helping lead over 1.3 billion people. And we had just spent several hours with them at Qinghai Lake, letting them buy us lunch and taking photos with them and laughing at them trying to ride camels. Now I understood why their leader had seemingly been so unsure about us joining them in the van. But in the end, I think they decided we weren’t so bad after all. And they weren’t so bad after all. So maybe we had some important cultural exchange without me even realizing it? Who knows.

But all was not rainbows and unicorns. When we got back to the hostel in Xining, my eyes looked like this.

It burns! It buuuurns us!!

Too many pretty pollinating rapeseed flowers for me. Still, despite the allergies and generally yuck feeling from being above 10,000 feet, it was an amazing day. No hyperbole, this trip was getting better and better.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2013 in Travel, Western China

 

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Epic Summer Adventure Part 1: Xining

First stop: Xining!

A lovely, riverside town

A rapidly-developing, riverside city

Here are some facts to get us started:

  • Capital of Qinghai province and biggest city on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
  • Population: 2 million
  • Elevation: 2300m (7500ft)

Before heading to Xining, I made a pit stop in Beijing to visit a friend.I left Tianjin the night before Amber, which ended up being somewhat disastrous. It landed me with the most expensive taxi ride EVAAAAAAA. 200 rmb, bitches. This is what happens when you miss the last subway north across the whole city and have to take an illegal taxi in a huge rainstorm, and the driver has no fucking idea where he’s going, and you, a foreigner, have to use Baidu Maps to tell him how to get to your friend’s place. Yeah… never doing that again.

The next day, I retraced my steps (but in the subway, thank goodness) to the Beijing West railroad station to meet Amber. Due to our characteristic procrastination in buying train tickets, we ended up having to buy not one, but TWO tickets to get to Xining! Oh boy.

The first tickets, hard sleepers to Xi’an, were glorious as always. I got some mad feels as we walked into the Xi’an train station… I had begun my foray into Chinese culture the year before in Xi’an, and it was strange to walk into the station at 4am and see the city wall again. Also, this girl’s hair was epic.

Hair converts to whip in times of crisis... or titillation.
Hair converts to whip in times of crisis… or titillation.

Our train from Xi’an to Xining was less thrilling. Despite my earlier vow to never buy hard seat tickets again (in case you forgot), there we were. The train ride began in optimism…

Foolish, foolish optimism
Foolish, foolish optimism

… and ended in blissful, metaphorical tears once we finally reached Xining and no longer had to climb over twenty people to get to the bathroom.

人山人海

人山人海

Despite my poor judgement in when to get off the bus and terrible directions from the hostel’s website, we eventually found our way to Lete Hostel. It was a decent place, for the record. Also, there was a spectacular supposedly Iranian restaurant down the road.

Srsly the best I had in China.
For serious the best Halal food I had in China.
The next day, we commenced the touristy tomfoolery… in jeans. And jackets! In the middle of summer!! It was gloriously cool. The fact that we got headaches all the time from the elevation was secondary.
We got some tasty drinks and cinnamon buns (YES!!!!) at Amdo Cafe…
I love caffeine and sugar combos.

I love caffeine and sugar combos.

… then set out to explore the Muslim Quarter. Seriously awesome stuff, with tons of fresh fruit, bakeries, rock candy, whole slabs of cow laying around, and chickens being butchered right before your eyes. Did I mention that the bird flu began out here? Hm.
Mmm, bread wheels!

Mmm, bread wheels!

Hawt chicks

Hawt chicks

While I felt somewhat like a nuisance there, the Dongguan Mosque was a really unique experience. I know the rest of China also has Muslim communities, but it was refreshing to see such a large, tightly-knit group.
Campy tourist photo

Campy tourist photo

Another market down the road was mostly food items, where we were thankfully introduced to one of the best things in the world 麻辣汤 (hot/spicy soup thing). It’s basically the same thing as 麻辣香锅, which I have previously praised, but it’s possibly… even better? Hard to say. It’s more soupy, has noodles, and is so, so good. Don’t be alarmed, this photo is the pre-mixed version. And it’s not nearly as spicy as it looks.

ALL THE TOFU!!

ALL THE TOFU!!

Being the adventure-fiends we were, Amber and I decided to go check out the South Mountain park in town, because trees. After living in Tianjin for nine months, we were very ready for some nature. Despite getting on the wrong bus again (I was having a hard time deciphering Xining’s bus system, for some reason), we finally found the park and climbed up a bunch of stairs to… something quite unexpected.

Taipei? Is that you?

Taipei? And Shanghai?? Shangpei.

The miniature Asian city park was obvs in disrepair, but the other miniature reincarnations of famous natural sites were better preserved. We tried climbing one of the rock formations, but a legion of guards with megaphones yelled us down.

Pre-climbing and getting yelled at.

Pre-climbing and getting yelled at.

We also watched a couple of monks play basketball, got hopelessly lost, and ran out of breath a lot.

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Exhausted, we half-heartedly attempted to go out with some Swiss guys to the bar, but ended up just listening to a girl spurn a clueless boy’s advances in the hostel before we called it a night.

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Travel, Western China

 

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The End: Western-ish China Expedition

So… I’m in Canada now.

What everyone in Vancouver does constantly.

What everyone in Vancouver does constantly.

I left China back in July, after a mostly fantastic ten months in the Middle Kingdom. It was an immensely difficult decision to leave. At one point, I was sitting in the back of a long-distance bus in Gansu, hitting my head against the window and making pros and cons lists about staying in China or following my plants to study in Vancouver. Obviously, I opted for Vancouver, and while some parts of the city are very Chinesey, it’s still not the same. I’m currently experiencing some nostalgia and decided to finally write the last serious of posts to describe my epic final days in China.

This is what happened, for all the other visual kids out there:

Thanks, G-maps.

Thanks, G-maps.

The original plan for summer vaca was quite different. My friend Amber (whose name mystically changes in every blog post) and I planned out an amazing month-long expedition to 新疆 Xinjiang province, waaaaaay out in westernmost China, until we realized a few things.

  1. Xinjiang is really fucking far away. Like, TWO DAYS TRAIN far away.
  2. Xinjiang is also really fucking huge. Once you spend TWO FULL DAYS on a train, you have to spend even more days on trains and buses to get around the province.
  3. Trains and buses to get around a province that’s almost as large as ALASKA is not a cheap task. We had a budget, and Xinjiang wasn’t working with it.

Long story short, we spent an entire evening planning our Xinjiang trip, only to discover it was too expensive. So we shamelessly stole a travel plan from another blog (which I can’t remember now! Sorry.. but they just stole it from Lonely Planet, so it’s all good).

In true Kirsten-fashion, I made an Excel spreadsheet of our schedule, probable costs, and details about how to get between towns. In my defense, I had to get back to Beijing to catch my flight home, so my excessive planning was somewhat necessary. Necessary, but ultimately fruitless, as Mother Nature had different plans for half of our trip, as you’ll see.

To re-experience the majesty of western-ish China with me, click below!

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Travel, Western China

 

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Inner Mongolia Adventures!!

Last week during the Dragon Boat Festival, Inner Mongolia happened. It was the coolest.

Grasslands, deserts, horse milk products, and more lamb dishes than you can shake a stick at. But the best part was the lack of pollution. We went from this in Tianjin…

Breathe it all in.

Breathe it all in.

… to this.

Real clouds!

Real clouds!

 

Destination: Inner Mongolia

Time: 4 days

Time spent on trains, buses, and taxis: 34 hours

Goals: ride horses and camels; drink strange Mongolian alcohol; experience tranquility away from people

Total Cost: 1200 RMB ($182)

 

At the Tianjin train station, my friend “Alanna” and I made a pleasant discovery: this little guy.

IMG_20130609_182644_201

We were sitting down next to a pillar, and Alanna looked to her left… and there was this little toy statue, all alone. We asked around to see if it belonged to anyone, but no one claimed the pup. We named him 土豆(Tudou, which means “potato” in Chinese). He, along with two of Alana’s students, became our constant Inner Mongolia traveling companions.

Because we like to procrastinate, we bought our train tickets only a couple of days before the holiday. This meant that all of the sleeper tickets were sold out, which left only hard seats (150RMB) for our 12-hour train ride from Tianjin to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. I won’t lie, it was miserable.

Pretty much a perfect night's rest.

Zzz’s were hard to come by.

Sleep-deprived and starving, we arrived to this confusing mess at the Hohhot east station.

Secret: none of these guys will use the meter.

Secret: none of these taxis will use the meter.

We decided that Starbucks would be the perfect solution to our exhaustion, so we followed Baidu maps’ instructions and took a taxi there. Unfortunately, Baidu is full of lies and deceit. It ended up being a tiny local coffee shop that was closed for the holiday. D’oh! So we loaded up on cans of Nescafe and gorged ourselves at a Chinese buffet breakfast restaurant for 5RMB per person.

Next, we took a local bus for 1RMB each to the long-distance bus station. After a bit of investigating, we found a bus that stopped by our first real destination, 希拉穆仁草原 (Xilamuren Grassland) for 20RMB. When we got off the bus, a woman immediately greeted us and took us to a little yurt village near the road. Our yurt, shared between the four of us, only cost 100RMB total.

Luxury living in the Mongolian countryside.

Luxury living in the Mongolian countryside.

It was early afternoon, so we had plenty of time for our first adventure: riding Mongolian horses! It cost 200RMB for a mini-tour around the nearby grassland. Although the grass was rather short and brown, and the horses were bony and weren’t the smoothest rides around, it was an invigorating way to see the blue sky and rolling hills that reminded me of the American Midwest. We made a stop to enjoy some horse-milk tea and eat some local milk products. Mongolian yogurt balls are the best, btw.

Milk products never tasted so good.

Milk products never tasted so good.

(Insert Lone Ranger theme here)

(Insert Lone Ranger theme here)

We shared dinner and two bottles of horse-milk alcohol with some Chinese tourists staying in another yurt and ended up talking to one of them, 迟浩 , for about two hours. He had never talked to a foreigner before, which still blows my mind. We discussed everything from differences in Chinese and American culture, to the environment, to censorship. We both got a little emotional when talking about certain issues, but we’re still friends 🙂

Coolest Mongolian guy I've met.

Coolest guy from Mongolia I’ve met.

After sunset, we grabbed the big, green, military-style coats that were stowed away in our yurts and wandered out into the grassland to see the stars. No joke, that was the most beautiful starry sky I have ever seen in my life. STARS. EVERYWHERE. We laid out there, careful to avoid laying on horse poop, until the evening chill forced us back to our yurts. Our yurt was also quite freezing, so we spent the night sleeping like this.

The all-seeing eye!

The all-seeing eye!

The next morning, we caught another 20RMB bus back to Hohhot, then took a 40RMB bus to the city of Baotou. This was an industrial city–we were able to see a clearly-defined cloud of pollution surrounding the city and its factories. We got a hotel for the night near the bus station(50RMB per person) and  enjoyed some outdoor BBQ.

The next day was the highlight of the whole trip. We got a bus toward 达旗 Daqi (21RMB), then got a taxi to 响沙湾, the Resonant Sand Bay. Silly name, awesome sand dunes.

The deadly desert

The deadly desert

We got half-priced entrance tickets for our student IDs (or in my case, my US driver’s license, 40RMB), and had to pay an extra 180RMB each for our “activities” tickets. The price was a little steep, but worth it.

As most parks in China, this one was heavily developed and ultra-touristy. Tourists have to travel around the park in a one-way loop… unless they want to travel the long-ish distances between attractions on foot.

Because we were too cheap to buy the extra cable car ticket, our first challenge was climbing up this monstrosity of a hill.

A slightly torturous activity to begin our day.

A slightly torturous activity to begin our day.

The pictures really don’t do it justice. We guesstimated it was about 10 stories tall, and let me tell you, climbing up a hill of sand is no easy feat. My sick friend Alanna almost died, but we were rewarded with a pleasant view of the valley at the top.

Cable cars are for pansies.

Cable cars are for pansies.

We took a desert vehicle to the next part of the park, where there was a strangely erotic Mongolian dance. Was it getting hot in there, or was it just me?

The best part: there was a kiddie pool right in front of the stage. #inappropriate.

The best part: there was a kiddie pool right in front of the stage. #inappropriate

There were many more activities nearby, which weren’t included in our ticket, so we moved on to the camel riding!

And no spitting!

My humps my humps my humps…

These camels were much more comfortable than the horses we rode in the grassland, and there was no spitting, which was a definite plus. There is no better way to cross long expanses of sand.

When we arrived at the end, Alanna and I decided that it was time to find some peace and quiet away from the hubbub of the tourist attractions. We wandered into the middle of some sand dunes, found a deep depression, laid down, and all we could hear was the wind blowing in our ears and the shifting sands. Finally, we had achieved tranquility!

The sound of silence

The sound of silence

BFFs

BFFs

We had lost our other friends, so we continued on to the rest of the park. A tourist train and another desert vehicle brought us back to the beginning, where we relaxed in the shade and waited for our friends to show up (they had been watching a reenactment of a Mongolian wedding).

Extremely satisfied with our desert experience, we ran down the huge sandy hill that had given us so much trouble earlier and found our taxi driver from before. He drove us all the way back to Baotou, and because he was so happy to have such nice ladies in his car, he even gave us a discount (120 down to 100RMB).

We had a few hours to kill before our train back to Tianjin left, so we got some dinner, bought some Mongolian snacks, and hung out at an outdoor BBQ to enjoy some brews. We were just going to have a couple bottles of Tsingtao beer, but they had freshly-brewed 雪鹿 beer, which is my new favorite Chinese beer, for only 28RMB.

It comes in pints?!

It comes in pints?!

Quite silly at this point, we walked over to Baotou east station and found our sleeper car. Literally less than five minutes after we got on, they turned the lights off, which was quite disappointing and ruined our dreams of playing cards and generally making shenanigans. 15 hours and 207RMB later, we returned to Tianjin’s smoggy skies, delirious with our many Inner Mongolian travels. Best Dragon Boat Festival EVER!!

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Travel

 

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MIDI Metal Madness

\m/

\m/

China never ceases to amaze me.

This past May holiday, my friend Chenguang and I headed to 蓟县 Jixian, a county north of Tianjin and east of Beijing, for a massive musical festival called MIDI.

Love for metal crosses all barriers

Love for metal crosses all barriers

We made the mistake of placing all of our trust and faith in his GPS, which meant we got hopelessly lost a few miles away from the festival. Instead of taking the main road, we ended up getting a tour of the local village and meandering through the hill country.

A lovely day for a village tour.

A lovely day for a village drive

But we finally made it to the party! Although we were only going to the last day of the festival, some people had been camping out there for the entire three days.

Tent City

Tent City

Three main stages, over thirty bands, sunshine, grass… what wasn’t to like? I saw more tattoos and dreadlocks and generally nonconformist behavior here than my entire time in China. People were dancing, drinking, moshing, and crowd-surfing. It seems that loud music can break through even the legendary Chinese reserve.

Even security guards got to break loose and crowd surf sometimes.

Even security guards got to break loose and crowd surf sometimes.

A lot of students came from all over northern China to get their crazy on. Each group had huge flags that they waved around in front of the stage, to both represent their homelands and keep track of their posse.

Most of the bands were Chinese, with many a “fighting” band (metal with screamed lyrics and no melody anywhere). I love me some metal, but they were a little too intense even for me. Many bands also incorporated traditional Chinese instruments into their music. Chinese folk metal, yessss!

If you didn’t like one band, all you had to do was wander to another stage and find something else that more suited your tastes.  That’s how I ended up listening to The Ordeal, a shamelessly-generic power metal band from Germany. Since power metal was my gateway drug into the metal world, I was quite pleased by their epic choruses and screaming guitar solos.

Let the hammer fall!

Let the hammer fall!

Another unexpected treat was a Swiss drumming duo called Bubble Beatz (horrible name, entertaining show). They had a whole set-up of unconventional “drums” made from various pieces of metal and wood, and even broke out a didgeridoo at one point. Their dance and dubstep breakdowns, as well as their shirtless man-chests, caused quite the stir.

Drop that bass.

Drop that bass

It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, with the only drawbacks being a mysterious lack of water anywhere around the festival and some horrendously dirty port-a-potties. Squatting outhouses should never be a thing. Here is a picture to haunt your dreams forever.

YOU'RE WELCOME.

YOU’RE WELCOME

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2013 in Life, Travel

 

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The Trip That Never Was

Happy Qingmingjie! People all across China are sweeping the tombs of their ancestors, or not and pretending they did. I originally planned to spend my three-day holiday at 泰山Taishan, a mountain about 2.5 hours south of Tianjin by train. But a series of tragic events, accompanied by laziness and thriftiness (thrifilaziness), crushed these plans into oblivion. Which I’m OK with.

At first, my friend and I were going to make the trip to Taishan by ourselves, but she quickly recruited some students from her school to go with us. Lucky for us, her student Steve took the reins and reserved hotel rooms for us and basically planned everything.

All we had to do was sit back and sip margaritas until the start of the holiday on Thursday–or so we thought. On Monday we got word that Steve somehow tore a ligament in his leg, obviously meaning he couldn’t go climb a mountain with us, and that he canceled the hotel room reservation that he had made in his name.

Our carefree holiday had changed forever.

I foolishly believed that one of my friend’s other students would help us poor foreigners out and find us a new place to stay, but no. I began searching online for hotels near Taishan, and English websites only had ridiculous expensive Chinese-style Sheratons and Hiltons. I switched my search to Chinese websites, but most of the hotels were already full, and the few rooms still available were far too much money.

I decided to persevere. But the task of reserving a hotel was made more difficult, since I couldn’t use my American credit cards on the websites, and I hadn’t yet set up my Chinese debit card for online purchases. I headed over to the ever-venerable Chinese Construction Bank and went through the preposterous process to simply be able to buy things online. Unlike the name/date of expiration/back-of-card code system used in the US, Chinese cards are FREAKING COMPLICATED.

On a website, you have to enter in your full name, debit card number, and a six-digit pin, then hit confirm on a super-futuristic device that the bank gives you.

01110110000101011

01110110000101011

After spending over an hour at the bank filling out one piece of paperwork incorrectly (not in caps), filling out another one correctly (in caps), and having one of the employees try (and fail) to set up banking on my phone, I went home and attempted to reserve a hotel. But in the box where I had to type in my full name (first, middle, and last), I COULDN’T TYPE IN THE LAST LETTER. My name was too long, since the bank insisted that I use my entire name, as listed in my passport, for all my paperwork.

Foiled again.

That night, less than 24 hours before we were supposed to catch our train, my friend and I sat in her room and freaked out that we wouldn’t be able to find somewhere to stay. Most of the hotels were completely full. One website said it would accept US cards, but my debit card didn’t work. Another said it accepted Paypal. Not my Paypal, evidently.

At this point, full of frustration and heartache, we realized we had to make a decision: spend another indeterminate long period of time looking for rooms and pay over 200 RMB, or $30+, per person each night (which is a lot for China), go to Taishan without hotel reservations on a busy holiday weekend and hope for the best, or call it quits and cry silent sobs for a trip that never was.

Other factors were also at work in our decision-making. Taishan is not for the weak of heart. It requires about six hours of climbing, and since it’s China, you have to climb the mountain IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT to see the sunrise. And it was supposed to snow the night we wanted to climb it. And I’m out of shape. And I didn’t want to slip and die.

So my friend and I took the difficulty of reserving hotel rooms and the scary weather forecast as omens: this Taishan trip was simply not meant to be.

Yippee! Seriously, after all of the drama that this almost-vacation had caused, I was glad to be rid of it.

We celebrated our new-found Tomb Sweeping Day freedom at our usual neighborhood bar. We chatted with some Japanese girls in Chinese (still a strange experience), and met a motorcycle-owning Chinese man with a helmet that prominently displayed a swastika. His drunken explanation of his grandfather or somebody fighting in WWII didn’t make much sense, but it was acceptable at 4 o’clock in the morning. Rosie the Riveter was also sighted with a beer and smoking hookah. She really needs to cut back if she’s going to continue being an inspirational American icon.

Chinese beer and Arabian smokes? How very un-American of you, Rosie.

Chinese beer and Arabian smokes? How very un-American of you, Rosie.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2013 in Life, Tianjin, Travel

 

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