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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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Hot Eats, Cool Treats

It’s springtime! For the most part, I’ve done what any sane person does during bouts of nice weather, and I’ve stayed inside watching back-to-back-to-back episodes of “Lost Girl” (season four can’t get here fast enough, by the way.) But on occasion, I have ventured out into the scary, pollen-filled outdoors.

I photo-bombed my own flowers picture.

Pretty things! And also, me.

More frequently, I have wandered into restaurants with friends, eager to satisfy our growling bellies with food that is usually some combination of rice or noodles. Let’s explore some of my latest food discoveries!

  • I’ve had 麻辣香锅 (Spicy Good-Smelly Pot) before, but ZOMG, there’s a restaurant nearby “Amelia’s” apartment that is absolutely divine. It’s one of those great “choose-your-own-ingredients” types of restaurant, so you can pick and choose all the yummy veggies, tofu, fungi,  and meat that you enjoy. It’s best to go easy on the fungi and meat, though, otherwise you’ll end up paying way too much money (like Amelia and I did the first time we went there.) Also, beware of accidentally eating one of the hot peppers. Mouth fire is real.
Get in my belly!

Get in my belly!

  • 肉夹馍  (meat bread thingie) and 酸梅汤 (plum juice): although I’ve traveled to Xi’an before, I somehow missed out on these distinctive Xi’an eats. Chopped-up beef sandwich, with a bowl of noodles and some juice? What’s not to like?
A balanced meal.

A balanced meal.

  • 烤面包 (toast): when some students and I ordered toast from a restaurant, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Bread on a stick, held over a fire for a while. Legit.
Ping Ping being a good toast model.

Ping Ping being a good toast model.

  • Last, but not least, 南瓜饼 (pumpkin yum yums). These are the sweetest thangs I’ve had in China! And they’re pumpkin!! They sadly lack cinnamon and nutmeg, but the abundance of sugar sprinkled over the top somewhat makes up for it.
When in doubt, dump sugar.

When in doubt, dump sugar on EVERYTHING.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2013 in Food, Uncategorized

 

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Taipei: tourism and dance movezz

I have decided that Taipei is awesome.

The touristy things are nice, but that’s not the reason. The weather has been great, but it’s more than just being able to wear shorts in January.

It’s how east meets west. It’s how people offer you directions when you’re hopelessly lost. People here are friendly and helpful and gorgeous and wonderful.

But I’ll move on before I get all teary-eyed. Yesterday was full of adventure. Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, the National Palace Museum, Shilin night market, and dancing, oh my!

CKS Memorial Park is under renovation (and evidently has been for ages), so parts of it are blocked off and obnoxious metal support beams are everywhere. Despite this, it was still beautiful… and entertaining. Evidently the thing to do on a Saturday morning for Taipei youngsters is to practice under the main pavilions with their dance troupe. Hearing Katy Perry as you wander around classic Chinese architecture is disturbing.

Rosie was also sighted there.

Rosie was also sighted there.

The National Palace museum is a little ways off the subway path, but only takes a few minutes on the bus from Shilin station. It’s in a valley with picturesque hills above it.

Inside are three floors chock full of Chinese artifacts made anywhere from the last century to two thousand years ago. My favorite was a Buddha statue of such serenity that I couldn’t help but stare at it for ten minutes.

Turning up the cheese.

Turning up the cheese.

The Shilin night market is chaos. Food stalls everywhere, clothing shops, and random shit that you didn’t even know you needed. After seeing this and the special new year’s market, I think I can say I’ve experienced night markets and never go again in my life.

This shop contains my fashion worst nightmares.

This shop contains my worst fashion nightmares.

To top the day off, I met some awesome girls for dinner and dancing. $17 (or $13 if you’re over 25–curse you, 25th birthday for being 26ish days away) for all-you-can-drink festivities with hawties? Umm yes!! And if you have a great friend like I do that requests the bartender to add “a little bit,” they will literally fill your jack and coke with 90% jack. Needless to say, there were some dorky white girl dance moves that night.

And so, slightly hung over but with many pleasant memories, I leave Taipei for the town of Hualien, gateway to Taroko Gorge. Time to get in some nature. Also, this in the Taipei train station. A children’s music group was setting up instruments nearby for some kind of AIDS-repelling ritual.

Stop AIDS

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2013 in Travel, Uncategorized

 

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Domestic Bliss

Life has been full of adventure. From playing with golf clubs and cool blankets that double as hats…

Golf clubs and head blankets

… to a D&D campaign with my sister’s nerd friends…

D&D

… the good times just keep on comin’.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

SUPPLIES!!!

After two months of strategic silence and subtle half-truths, my surprise visit back home proved to be an astounding success.

In China, Spring Festival is such a huge deal that the Powers That Be have decided that students should get A MONTH AND A HALF off of school. Naturally, teachers also get this mega-holiday. So with that much vacation time, and money burning holes in my pockets, I decided that an Epic Adventure needed to take places. And what Adventure is complete without a proper sending-off from one’s family?

The journey began last Saturday from Tianjin’s bus depot. There I caught the 2-hour bus to Beijing Capital Airport and met an American girl that looked like she was 15 but ended up being a super-genius studying chemical engineering at MIT. Looks can be deceiving.

A 1.5 hour delay, 12 hour flight, missed connection, overnight stay in Chicago at Double Tree for $62 instead of $220, and another two hour flight later, I stood in front of my parent’s house and rang the doorbell.

My mom opened the door and stared in confusion at my brother-in-law and me. “What are you doing here?!”

After a long pause, she covered her mouth and attack-hugged me. “KIIIIIIRSTEN!!!!”

Tears, sobbing, the works. Niagra Falls were streaming down her face. Had she just sniffed an onion? Does unexpectedly seeing my face push people to tears?

My dad was still in the house and had heard my voice. He was calm and composed… until I walked around the corner. As soon as he saw me, he started crying too! Either they were both rubbing jalapenos in their eyes, or they had just finished watching puppy suicide videos. It was madness. Glorious Madness.

Other highlights include:

  • Spending two of my last three nights in Tianjin out past 3am. The lack of sleep led to an impressive head cold, which has graciously awarded me with two ears so clogged I can barely hear.
  • I got a smartphone. My life is now consumed by staring at a tiny but beautiful screen.
  • My niece ate with a fork for the first time. You go, girl!
  • She also enjoys licking windows.
Window-licking good!

Window-licking good!

  • Legos are still fun. This began as a luxury resort, then turned into a flying pirate prison ship.
Yoho!

Yoho!

  • This is Rosie. She will be accompanying me on the rest of my adventures. Between Lucy my backpack and Rosie the Riveter, my party is full. No one can stand in our path!
We can do it!

We can do it!

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Travel, Uncategorized

 

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Spreading mortification where’er I go!

Best bathroom reaction EVER.

So I just got a new haircut moments ago. It’s the classic fauxhawk, but this time my hairstylist decided to give me extremely short sides. Like they’re so short they’re fuzzy! Amazing.

I went into the lady’s bathroom at a nearby mall, since my next stop was Starbucks and coffee shops here inexplicably have no bathrooms. On my way out, a 50-something year old woman came walking in. When she saw me, she stared at me, stopped, then BACKED UP SLOWLY. Confusion and embarrassment were unmistakably etched across her face.

“我进错了!” I entered the wrong bathroom, she stuttered.

I assured her this was not the case, as I walked past her and started cracking up laughing. I’ve never had someone literally back away from me in terror. You should have seen the look on her face! Pure gold. And the fact that it happened two seconds after I got this new haircut signals to me that I have a lot of such reactions to look forward to in the near future.

Oh China. You and your small-minded views of what women look like. xoxo

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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tl;dr

So there I was, writing my second draft for a college application essay. I knew that it had a 1000 character maximum (CHARACTER, not word), and that I was re-writing the essay because I had created an 800-word monstrosity about my time in the Air Force. But as sometimes happens, I got a little carried away and ended up writing 711 words, or 3507 characters. Sigh.

On the plus side, in my meandering essay about my job here in Tianjin, I sort of figured out what I want to achieve by teaching here. That’s kind of a big deal.

I’m inserting what I wrote here, not because I’m trying to be pretentious. It just really came as a light bulb moment and I’m excited about it, OK? OK. Note that it is somewhat edited to take out the boring introductory bit and anything that might imply I’ve broken any part of my contract here in China. I understand if you feel like this is all tl;dr. I’ll be posting some more pictures of Beijing next time 🙂

*ahem*

Since I had already visited China a few months earlier, the initial adjustment to life here was relatively simple. I already knew how to push my way onto the bus and how to navigate squat toilets. I’ve found that the most difficulty came a couple of months later, when homesickness started to settle in and I just really wanted a Chipotle burrito. Still, if my biggest complaint about daily life is the unfortunate lack of Mexican food, things are going well.

Initially, I found my work at the university to be overwhelming. I didn’t receive any direction from the English department, and the textbooks for my classes were next to useless. The first few weeks were rough, as I figured out my teaching style and the best places to find classroom resources. In my business reading class, I avoided using the textbook and instead printed off news articles from the internet. I thought that these not only have higher-level English vocabulary dealing with the economy and business, but it was an opportunity for my students to learn about the world (and not from a Chinese government-controlled news source).

My oral English topics have covered the mundane and the more serious, from shopping and movies to the 2012 presidential election and gun control. I’ve learned that Star Wars never quite made it to China, that girls here share the same inexplicable fascination with Twilight, and that death metal isn’t music to young Chinese ears. It’s been a lot of fun sharing slang, popular Youtube videos, and how exactly to use all those swear words they hear in the movies.

However, as I learned early on in one of my classes, certain “sensitive” topics are best avoided–talking about the recent controversy over the Diaoyu Islands with my students led to the class leader politely, and then more forcibly, suggesting we find a new topic of discussion. Tibet is only a tourist destination, the One Child Policy is for the greater good, and internet censorship is nothing to worry about.

I don’t think it’s my job to fill in holes in my students’ history education. I’m also not here to look down on their culture or lord my knowledge over them. But I do want my students to understand that they see the world through a red prism–that their access to information is limited, and that the balance of personal freedom and the collective good isn’t as simple as their government portrays. In short, I want my students to learn how to think for themselves, to question, and to always strive for more.

I’m not an especially political person. I usually avoid heated political debates, because the discussion invariably turns into an argument, complete with finger-pointing, truth-bending, and neither side willing to compromise. But living in a Communist country has made me realize how honest, cooperative discussion aimed at collaboration is invaluable and the key to lasting political progress. Although this type of discussion is rare in America, it is altogether absent in China.

So if my students learn one thing from my year teaching here in Tianjin, I hope they learn to be more open-minded and aware. While I understand that China has serious limitations on free speech, this doesn’t negate peoples’ freedom to think. The government may control their expression, but it’s incapable of controlling their spirit to learn and grow.  If over the course of this year my students become slightly more tolerant, discerning, and ambitious young adults, my job here is done.

***

That’s all. Thanks for reading if you made it this far.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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