Wednesday, April 16, 2014

China: Thailand Edition

I escaped China for ten days, and it was incredible.

The past month or so in Kunming has been pretty uneventful. The program keeps us all fairly busy throughout the week, so by the time the weekend rolls around I have no energy for travel, and uh… blog posts. But excuses are lame, so I’ll skip to the good stuff.

Early in March, my close friend, Brianne, came to visit me. She had just finished a yearlong teaching gig in Korea, so the timing was perfect. She flew to Kunming and stayed with me for almost two weeks. I never factored the language pledge into this visit, which made for some really awkward moments when running into my friends or the program director. At times it felt like she was my secret lover, sneaking into each other’s rooms for some forbidden encounters. I also felt a bit guilty leaving her when I had to go to class or get some studying in, but I think we did a pretty good job of making it work. It was great having someone already accustomed to Asian culture, giving us a chance to make fun of all the weird stuff the Chinese and Koreans do.

He is NOT having it with our selfie. 

A few days after the train station tragedy, we were given permission to leave our lockdown and head over to Hong Kong. That city is amazing. I was so ignorant towards anything about Hong Kong before coming to China, so the entire weekend was filled with exciting surprises. The best surprise for me was by far the fact that parts of Hong Kong felt like Manhattan placed in the middle of a rainforest, with entire blocks shrouded by large canopies and mist. It was a great weekend of shopping, sightseeing, speaking English; I will definitely be returning.

There are so many trees like this right on the sidewalk.

After Brianne left, I zombied through midterm week and awaited my next excursion, Thailand.

These little guys (def a girl here) are all over the beaches

Thailand is amazing. I don’t know why I never knew anything about this part of the world. I had vague images of Bangkok from “The Hangover” films, and knew that southern Thailand was scattered with islands from “Survivor”. I’m also not ashamed to admit knowing that the Kardashians were in Thailand the week before I arrived; but, apart from my excessive TV knowledge, Thailand was never really on my radar. I got the idea from Max, who had already visited the country, and joined my friend Lillian, who went to Harbin with us and was also in CET Beijing, for the Best.Spring.Break.Ever.

Practicing my Muay Thai skills. 

Our trip started off a bit shaky when our plan to meet in the Bangkok airport backfired. Lillian’s flight was delayed a few hours, leaving me to think she had abandoned me and was preparing myself to go off on my own. After a few hours, I had the brilliant idea of reading the giant sign in the airport, informing me to chill the f out until her plane came. Thankfully, she landed and our trip began. Our first day in Bangkok was also a bit of a mess. During my airport freak-out, I spent some time reading about the tourist scams in my travel book. One of them warned about rickshaw drivers that will offer to take tourists around the entire city and stop off at important attractions for only about 30 cents. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Midway through the tours the rickshaw drivers then take you to some warehouse and pressure you into buying junk. So, as the well-read traveler I am, I was fully prepared to take on Bangkok. First rickshaw we see: “Whoa! What a great deal! Oh, it’s a holiday special? Yeah I believe him, lets do it!”. I’m proud to say I didn’t buy any of the suits at the warehouse, but it actually was a great deal and Lillian wasn’t sold into the sex trade, so whatevs.

Rickshaw, tuk tuk, from hell.

Our second day in Bangkok was much safer since we spent the day derping around in some temples and palaces. You’d think over the course of Thai history that they would have abolished the rule that you must completely cover up in the 90° heat, but nah. One of the temples contained an emerald Buddha, which they actually have outfits for and change him depending on the season. It was a little silly, but fascinating. We also spent some time in the markets of the city and attempted to haggle in their famous “floating markets”, which are basically loads of boats along the river filled with goods.

It was so hot and we definitely made his job 10x worse.

We spent hours in this market. It was huge.

After Bangkok, what Lillian and I liked to call the “real vacation” began. That Monday, we flew down over to Krabi, a province in southern Thailand. Immediately after arriving at our hotel, we were picked up by an elephant trekking company and taken over to the elephant reserve. At the reserve, we rode elephants, fed them bananas, and even got to bathe with a smaller one. It was a great a day, but part of me felt bad for the animals because I wasn’t entirely sure how well they were treated. While riding and bathing them, some Thai dude had a giant hook he would use to control them, and I could have sworn I saw a tiny tear and a look that said, “kill meeeeeee”. The other people in my tour group said it doesn’t hurt them, so I’ll just have to feign ignorance to feel better about myself.

Elephant hates us too. 

Tuesday was one of our many relaxing beach days. Early in the morning, Lillian and I rented motorbikes and drove an hour or so to Ao Nang, which is a smaller beach town in Krabi province. On the way there, we turned into a gas station for a quick stop, and Lillian ate shit. She was going maybe 2mph during her turn and completely wiped out and flipped over her bike, knocking the wind out of her and trashing up her leg. It was so funny though. I never told her, but throughout the drive to Ao Nang I would occasionally play back her fall in my head and start dying of laughter again. When we arrived to the beach, I got off my bike, inhaled the fresh sea air, turned around, and saw Lillian sprawled out on the pavement surrounded by some couple that happened to have an entire Rite-Aid in their bag. I don’t know how she survived that trip, but she was a trooper and was all pumped for the rest of day. We didn’t do much else that day, but the beaches were spectacular. Also, the food in Thailand is unbelievable. I tried Thai food for maybe the second time a few weeks before leaving for China, but now I am officially hooked.

What a champ
Coconut rice and mango. Simple, but delicious.

Maybe five minutes after Lillian's wipe out. I realize now this wasn't the best idea. 

Ao Nang, Krabi Province, Thailand. 

The next day was my favorite day. We were picked up by a zip lining company in the morning and driven over to the rain forest. The group was just Lillian, two really hung-over British girls, and me, so we kind of had the jungle to ourselves. The locals gave us a quick tutorial, and then we were left to swing around the trees. They had so many different kinds of ropes courses, and at times I was high enough that I was unable to see the jungle floor. I was in heaven. Immediately after the jungle, we were dropped off in Ao Nang, and picked up by a sunset cruise boat. We boarded around 3pm, and had the entire evening to sail around, snorkel, drink, swim, chat, and drink. I honestly would live on an island if I could, so that sailboat ride was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced.

I have no idea what I am doing.

Tree top chillin.

After Krabi, we took a bus a few hours further south to Trang. In Trang, we didn’t have much planned, so we just spent two days hanging on the beach and motor biking around the hot springs. Lillian lost her motorbike privileges, so she rode behind me. Trang was ok, but we probably would have had a better time if we had stayed in Krabi.

So hot right now.

Our last day was originally planned to just be a layover night in Bangkok; but, to our surprise, we had flown back just in time for the Thai New Year. The Thai people really know how to party. Entire blocks were closed off and turned into a giant water fight dance party. The street vendors sold us water guns, and it became an all out water battle. For this celebration, nobody is off limits. I was soaked in about five minutes and we had hours of fun just dancing around and attacking people.

I’ve now returned to Kunming and classes are back in effect. It’s nice being able to communicate with the locals, which was something I had a really hard time doing in Thailand. I suppose I underestimated how convenient it is to understand the language in a foreign country. So, Brianne, I give you major props for surviving Korea.

I’m going to lie again and promise a new blog post soon, so just bare with me. Happy Easter, everyone!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mountains, Motor Bikes, and Food Poisoning


I have a passport! After what has felt like an eternity of dealing with my visa issues, I finally was able to pick up my passport, and be a real person again. When I arrived to Kunming the government had issued me an interim passport/visa, which honestly just looked like a wallet sized wanted poster, but it permitted me to travel within the Yunnan province. This will segue into my travel stories, starting now.

I was fortunate enough to have three of my friends from Beijing travel down south and rescue me for a week of vacation in the cities of Dali and Lijang. I had never heard of these places before, but at that point I didn’t care and just wanted to get out and see some more parts of China. Thank god they did all the planning, because this trip turned out to be my favorite part of China so far. Everyone arrived in Kunming and met me at my dorm, but we immediately left for the train station to head out to Dali. It was about an eight hour train ride, but we took what is called a “hard sleeper”, meaning everyone got their own bed and were able to pass out and wake up right as we were pulling in. This was my second experience with the Chinese train system, and I’ve got to admit it’s really not that bad. The only thing that sucks is that the beds are triple bunk beds, meaning you have no room to do anything. Also, people still stare at us.

Traveling in style.

Dali is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. It’s a small city centered on a massive lake, and surrounded by mountains that are so unreal that they look fake. We arrive around 7am, just as the sun was rising, and couldn’t believe that the mountains weren’t part of a Disney backdrop. After dropping off our stuff, we headed straight to the main part of town, and almost immediately rented motorbikes. My friend Mike and I chose motorbikes (easy choice), while Alyssa and Sophia rented regular bikes (losers). The bike people honestly didn’t care at all what we did, so for about $16 we had the bikes for the day. A few minutes of swerving though pedestrians past until we made the horrible decision of riding on the main road. I think we lasted five minutes before a truck almost wrecked me up; instead, we had a nice little ride through the countryside (it was safe, Mom, I promise). To make it an authentic traditional Chinese experience, everyone bought cowboy hats, hopped on our hogs, and zoomed out into the fields. This honestly might have been my favorite day in China, and easily in the top 5 days of my life. The giant mountains at our backs enhanced the experience of riding through the farms and chatting with the local farmers. After a delicious lunch on some farm, we rode over to the lake, took some photos, and Mike and I mustered up the courage for a quick dip in the water. It was really cold.

Killin' it.

I actually can't feel my legs here.

That night, we asked the hostel for some advice, and headed to check out Dali’s nightlife. Again, this was my favorite night in China so far. We bought our first rounds of drinks, but after that I don’t think we had to pay for anything else. There was a group of young adults that worked at a television station, who welcomed us into their party for the night. That’s a total lie. They had a giant plate of popcorn and French fries, so we straight up just plopped down at their table, pretended to be interested in some conversation, and ate their food. They loved it though and treated us for the rest of the night. Some other highlights of that night included the bluegrass band of expats, the stripper pole, and assigning English names to a few of the other patrons. We named one man Jerry, and essentially turned him into the star of the night, but I think the popularity quickly went to his head. Also, there was a blacked out young woman named Flower, who we instead gave the English name of Sloppy Flower. In hindsight this all sounds pretty horrible, but it was just too funny watching her introduce herself to other Chinese people as Sloppy. The night abruptly ended when Jerry pulled out a fake gun in the middle of the bar, scaring us straight back to the safety of our hostel. Nothing sobers you up faster than witnessing your Chinese protégé whip out a gun in the middle of a bar.

Dali Crew: Mike, Sophia, Alyssa, and James.

The next day we took a two-hour train ride over to Lijiang, where we planned on sleeping for three nights. After the first night of just walking around town, we learned that the most important place to visit was the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We were under the impression that it was a day hike, but quickly had to adjust our plans after finding out that it actually takes about a day to reach the gorge. The next morning, we hired an unofficial driver to take us over to the base of the gorge, where we immediately started out hike up. We had a lot of fun blasting music and climbing up the mountain, where we could progressively see the awe-inspiring view of the gorge. I didn’t know this before (embarrassing, I know), but a gorge is basically a narrow valley between mountains with a river running through it. Legend has it that tiger once leaped across the gorge. I didn’t actually read the posters about the legend, but you get the idea.

No joke, this was the view from my room.

Once we reached the peak of the mountain we checked into our hostel that had the most UNREAL VIEW of the gorge. Our rooms were literally hanging right off the edge of the mountain. The outhouses were missing the wall facing the edge of the cliff, so you could actually pretend to be pooping into the river. It was so much fun. We spent the rest of the evening shooting rocks off the cliff with a slingshot, eating an amazing mountain dinner, and drinking/dancing under the stars. Staying the night on that mountain was one of the most peaceful nights of my life, and kind of eye opening about just how powerful nature can be.

Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hostel, and then proceeded to walk back down the mountain. We probably would have zipped back down to civilization in under an hour, if only we hadn’t stopped for our countless amount of photo shoots and waterfall excursions. Once returning to Lijiang, we again walked around the town, and had dinner at a food court looking restaurant in the middle of all the street vendors. Unfortunately for me, this is where I ate something (it was totally the noodles) that gave me horrible food poisoning. The directors of our programs constantly warned us about the dangers of street food, but I of course didn’t listen because I’m a jackass. Anyway, this sickness couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time. After throwing up all night, we headed to the train station where I threw up in a plant, and then boarded an EIGHT-HOUR TRAIN back to Kunming. I threw up all over that train; and, to make it worse, Chinese trains only have squat toilets. The lowest point of my life was alternating between squatting on the toilet, then unexpectedly having to switch over and throw up in said toilet. I had to sit out for a few days with everyone in Kunming, but was able to rally myself to go out for our final night. It was a pretty standard night, which in China means nothing, because you are guaranteed to see some weird things.

Selfie Sneeze.

Aristocats in da club

After my friends returned to their individual cities and programs, the students from my spring semester program arrived. The first week of classes just finished, meaning we’re back to a language pledge. We went hiking in Kunming to the mountain Xishan the other day, but other than that not much has been going on. Since I have a multi-entry visa, I’ve started to plan some of my next trips, but I have a feeling it might be a little while until I post anything of substance.

"Chicken Head Soup for the Soul"

New friends, new semester.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Kunming: Life as an Exile

Day 9 in Kunming. I’m in a constant state of hunger and boredom. I have run out of peanut butter. I haven’t had human contact (i.e. English) in about three days, and am counting down the time until I am reunited with my CET friends and can actually experience some study abroad traveling like everyone else. Right now the Chinese New Year celebrations are in full effect, so everything is closed down and I’m hungry. Like actual starving person hungry. A few days ago I went to a local market and bought some peanut butter and jelly, but they didn’t have any bread. If you stick one finger in the peanut butter, and another finger in the jelly, then eat them at the same time you can forget that you are trapped in a Chinese city that was once used to hold banished government officials. I still haven’t figured out what I did to deserve my banishment, but my passport should arrive on Feb 17th. In the passport office, I had a forty-five minute interrogation with some police/military guy, and was informed that, among other things, I am strictly forbidden to talk about the Chinese government on the Internet. Also, I am legitimately afraid that they will deport me if I elaborate anymore, so you’ll just have to ask me in person how that experience was.

脑子, or jaozi, are basically tiny steamed dumplings.
They are traditionally eaten during the Chinese New Year, or, if you're me, all the time.

Yesterday, I got lost and walked two hours to the only open supermarket in Kunming, only to buy sliced bread, jelly, and Goldfish crackers. They didn’t even have any peanut butter, but I had already committed to the bread and jelly that I had to live with my choices. Supermarkets in China are really confusing. I wanted to buy some Chinese food or snacks, but nothing makes sense and I was too hungry to be adventurous. I was so exhausted when I got back to my hotel, but then started laughing because all I had accomplished that day was buying bread.

Bread...someone please talk to me.

Okay, my complaining is over. This has been building up the past few days, but, in all seriousness, Kunming is absolutely gorgeous. The city is nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring”, and every day truly feels like an early June day back home. All the locals act like we’re in the polar vortex with their scarves and winter jackets, but I’ve finally gotten used to their stares and comments about my pastel colored shorts, sunglasses, and flip-flops (I CAN UNDERSTAND YOU BRO ITS HOT DEAL WITH IT). I’ve spent most of the past week walking around the Green Lake (an intricate system of bridges around a lake and one of the cultural centers of Kunming), reading on the “quad” at my Yunnan University, and tanning while sipping from a fresh coconut. Classes don’t start until Valentine’s Day, so I’ve been enjoying this little vacation. 
Green Lake jog. PALM TREES

Spongebob ExtraChromosomePants

Thankfully, last weekend I met another college student who was also in Kunming by himself, so I had about three days with a travel partner; but, more importantly, I had someone to talk with. On Saturday, we managed to figure out the bus system well enough to take us two hours away to the Stone Forest. Millions of years ago, when the continents were moving, water began pouring out of the area, eroding behind massive stone pillars and creating miles of stone forest. Even before coming to Kunming, I had learned about this area in class, so it was at the top of my list for places to go. The Stone Forest is incredible. After climbing to the top of Lion’s Peak (Den?), I was able to look out on the entire forest, and was amazed at the sheer size of the place. Other parts of the forest contained deep caves, where one wrong step would lead to a quick death by impalement. Overall, it was really cool and some great exercise. I’m definitely planning on going back there.

 石林 (Stone Forest)
The stairs are cut straight out of the stone.

The next day, we took another bus to the top of one of the mountains overlooking Kunming, to check out the Bamboo temple. I’ve seen a lot of temples already in China, so I was mainly just looking forward to do something besides walking around the lake. The temple was eh, but we ran into another girl who had also been studying in Beijing. This girl was born on Staten Island, but grew up in France and knows like five languages. She was more interesting than the both of us. After ten minutes of pretending to be interested in the temple, the three of us decided to go exploring around the mountain. We hiked for a few minutes until encountering a rope bridge with an actual toll guard. Somehow we charmed ourselves out of the full toll and continued along our hike. I hadn’t really ever had the chance to check out Kunming from afar, so it was pretty cool to get a sense of just how unique this mountain/lake city is. The rest of the hike was beautiful and uneventful, but at one point we saw a Ghost Busters street sign that meant…something.

"Wear your seatbelt", or become a ghost?

That night, we went to an area of the city called Kundu. I’m not sure what Kundu translates into, but it is the red light district of Kunming, and where most of the nightclubs are located. I’ll probably have more fun in Kundu once all of my friends show up, but it is interesting to see how Kunming people party, because it honestly looks like they don’t even want to be there. The lay out of most of these clubs is basically a bunch of tiny tables, with an even smaller dance floor in the middle. Each table is occupied by groups of girls that look like their shits don’t stank, with unopened bottles of beer and a large edible arrangement in the center. These girls, however, made me feel reeeaaally good about myself. Every time I took a lap around the bar, I was stopped by one of their friends and summoned over to their table for free alcohol and broken conversation. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they were barking up the wrong tree, but my wallet welcomed the free alcohol. Besides happy hour at the local expat bar, I don’t think I paid for a single drink that whole night. It looks like I’m going to enjoy living in Kunming for the next few months after all.

Clown in a nightclub. Because China.

Unfortunately for me and my sanity, my travel companions have already left for the next legs of their vacations, leaving me all alone again. They left right before the New Year festival began, which sucks because, as I mentioned before, nothing is open. It’s kind of depressing walking down my neighborhood and seeing the once lively shops all boarded up. Luckily, there is a French café that is open today, Saturday, so I am currently sitting outside typing up this blog. About twenty minutes ago, a little Chinese boy came up to me and asked to practice his English. His English was horrible, but it was hilarious watching him try. He didn’t say much, but my favorite part of it was him saying “orange has two meanings: one is color, other is fruit. Red yellow make orange. Do you like snack orange?”.

My friends come on Monday, so I don’t have that much longer to wait around. We’ve booked train tickets to travel within the province of Yunnan to the city of Dali, and one other city that I forgot the name of. I’m just so excited to travel around that I don’t even care where we go. I think this is the longest post I’ve written, so I’m going to stop now. Maybe I’ll go snack orange.

So is the masseuse blind, or am I blindfolded, or??

Friday, January 24, 2014

Harbin: Real life Narnia

I'm cold.

Last weekend, Max, three other CET students, and I decided to take a quick trip up north to a city called Harbin. We flew to Harbin, and chose to take a fast train back to Beijing. It was only two nights, but was definitely worth the trek. Harbin is very close to the border of Russia, which means January was the perfect month to lay out on the beach, get my tan on, and scope out some hot Russians. WRONG. Harbin is the coldest place on this planet. Years ago, penguins were checking out some real estate here and were like “nah fuck that, too cold”. I’m not even exaggerating; we were only able to spend a maximum of twenty minutes outside before we had to huddle up in one of the many Russian cafés Harbin has to offer. The days we were there averaged at around -20°C, which, if you do some math and equations, was really cold °F.

Little igloo on the streets of Harbin. They were selling warm Coca Cola right inside.

The great thing about being so close to Russia is that the history and architecture of Harbin is a blend of Russian and Chinese culture. It’s a little odd, but very fascinating. On some streets, you could be staring at a typical Chinese temple with those slanted roofs, and then quickly turn around and be staring at an old Russian Orthodox church. Another advantage about visiting Harbin is that the Chinese locals just assume you are Russian, so you no longer have to deal with the constant awkward stares while walking around the city. The whole city was incredibly beautiful, and was actually not what I had expected at all. We came here mainly for the annual Ice Festival, but the many interesting bars, restaurants, and cafés pleasantly surprised all five of us. One of the cafés that we went to looked like Christmas had been frozen in time. The entire place smelled like fresh cookies, and was decorated entirely with little snow-covered trees and Babushka dolls. The couple next to ordered a ton of waffles, but didn’t touch any of it, so we were able to beg the busboy to give us their food.

Russian Church.

The main reason anyone would come to Harbin is for the city’s annual Ice Festival. Every year, ice sculptors from all around the world come to Harbin and recreate an entirely new city, made completely from ice. Everything is ice. Also, the festival is huge, so at times you forget you are in a festival and begin to think you are actually in a city. Apparently, every year they have a main attraction for the center of the festival, and this year just happened to be the Empire State Building. Although not as large as the actual building, the ice recreation was huge and so impressive.

Ice Empire State Building

One section of the festival even had a ski performance going on, with performers synchronized-skiing down a makeshift mountain. Another area of the festival had a giant concert going on, which we were able to get on stage for and join in with the scantily clad bunny dancers. I actually felt kind of bad for those bunny girls, because I was having a hard time with the cold, and I was wearing about five different layers. The ice festival was even colder than the streets of Harbin. We were basically in a giant icebox, so to survive we had to sprint and dance around everywhere we went to keep our blood flowing. My favorite part of the festival had to be the giant ice slide. In the middle of the festival was a giant ice castle, complete with watchtowers and everything; and, after climbing up to the top you were able to slide down an escape slide. It was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, my hands were too cold to take a lot of pictures, so there isn’t for me to work with here. Overall, we had a blast in Harbin, and it was a welcomed break from the daily workload back in Beijing. The train ride back was a ton of fun too, since we bought first class tickets (Treat Yo Self 2014), and I had a nice little chat with a six-year-old Chinese girl. Our speaking skills were about equal, so I felt really good about my progress here.

Goat heads on the road, no big deal.

Ice cream, because we are idiots.
The Harbin Crew: Max, James, Lillian, Melanie, and Brandon. 

I’m in Kunming right now, but I’ll address that in a few days. Hope everyone is doing well!