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!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

So you think you're so Great, Wall?

I tried to hold off as much as a could. Really, I did. But it happened…I used a squat toilet. When you gotta squat you gotta squat, and I REALLY had to take a squat. The bathrooms in the dorms are all westernized but, at most restaurants in Beijing, it’s strictly squat toilets…and you have to bring your own toilet paper. The funniest part about it was that there was no handlebar, so there was a lot of multitasking involved. If I keep this up, by the end of my trip I’m going to have some really nice glutes.
You really question your choices in life when faced with this situation.

On Saturday we went to the Great Wall. My already sore legs could barely handle the hike; but, when you finally make it up the mountain and inside the towers, it’s pretty surreal. The entire view of the never-ending wall with the mountainous background looks exactly as it does in pictures, but is 100% more beautiful in person. It’s insane how people were able to construct that thing; I think the sign said it’s over 13,000 miles. We lucked out with perfect weather, blue skies, and negligible air pollution. It’s difficult to pick my favorite memory from that day, but I’d have to say it’s between either eating our picnic lunch in the tower (however the dumplings I packed ended up being big balls of bread), or climbing on top of one of the ledges and looking out onto the entire structure. In Chinese, the Great Wall translates literally into “long wall”, which I feel is a much more fitting way to describe it. When we finished climbing, a bunch of us took the gondola back down to the bus. The teachers were yelling at us claiming we weren’t allowed to, but we pretended to not understand their Chinese.  

Great Wall, China.

One of our assignments this week was to visit a local middle school and chat with the students. There were so many students that we ended up having three middle schoolers to one American. They were a lot harder to talk to than the old people from last week. I also forgot to read the list of questions ahead of time, leading to a lot of awkward pauses as I struggled to make up something to say. They definitely thought I was an idiot, so all we ended up talking about was Beyonce and Spiderman. It was still a lot of fun. Afterwards, they performed a song for us, and then we all had a quick painting lesson.

I made this.

Kicking some ass. Tai-chi class.

Saturday night was Max’s 21st birthday, which I totally remember.

The next morning I was able to convince some people to get off their asses, drink some water, take an Advil, and accompany me to the Summer Palace. I know its winter right now, but holy shit that place is beautiful. I can’t even imagine what it would look like in the summer. At first I was expecting a cute little tower with some Chinesey lanterns. However, there was no way I could have predicted what this place would look like. Essentially, the estate is centered on a giant lake, with a bridge to an island in the middle, and a brilliant palace on top of a hill overlooking the water. Since its fairly cold, the lake had frozen over, so people were walking across the ice to get a better view of the palace. Everyone else was too scared to do that (lame), so we decided to hike up the palace and scope it all out. It. Is. So. Cool. At the peak of the palace you can overlook the lake, with the skyscrapers of Beijing right in the background. I’m just going post photos again because I never give these places justice.

Peak of the Summer Palace

Summer Palace. So unreal.

Today we went to the Beijing Zoo, but it was actually really depressing. At least in American zoos they pretend that the animals are having a great time, and hide the fact that its basically animal prison. Here, the cages were super small, and I don’t think I ever saw a single zookeeper. Also, you could get so close to the animals that some people were petting the zebras. I have a video of an elephant that I’m convinced went crazy; it’s rocking its head back and forth the whole time. I wouldn’t recommend going there. Unfortunately, we ran out of time for the panda exhibit, so I’m probably going to have to be a hypocrittiumus and go back for that. The zoo is right across from the school so it won’t be too inconvenient.

Super market I mentioned before. Pigs' feet.
This weekend were flying to a city called Harbin. It is really far up North, basically the borders of Russia and North Korea. They are having their annual Ice Lantern Festival, which is supposed to be sick. Sorry for the late post, expect a new one in a week. Also, I can’t tell if these posts are that interesting, so let me know if there’s anything you want to hear about, because there’s a lot I’ve been leaving out.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Settling In

Check out that air pollution

A lot has happened in this past week. First of all, the language pledge is in full effect, which means absolutely NO ENGLISH. Ever. You’re not even allowed to listen songs sung in English, so Jessica by The Allman Brothers Band has been on repeat in my room. The only time you are permitted to speak English is if you want to call home, need to talk about passport/visa issues, or if you are sneaky like I am (shh!). However, everyone including Max, my friend from home, and myself have all been pretty good about not breaking the pledge. There are some days when I really impress myself on how much I am able to understand. That isn’t to say I am anywhere close to fluency, but it’s just cool to see that my work at Wake Forest has paid off. It’s also interesting how quickly everyone was able to adapt to speaking to each other Chinese, and for the most part have been able to communicate fairly effectively. Also, I have greatly improved my miming skills; challenge me in charades, I dare you.

Speaking of visa issues, I’ve got them. When I first applied for my visa, I did so through a third party company called CIBT. They fucked that up pretty hard, which forced me to go to the NYC consulate myself and apply for my student visa. I thought everything was fine, but a few days after arriving in Beijing, my program director informed me that my student visa is actually a yearlong residency visa, which requires several more steps to be completed in China. To do so, I am being pulled from my Jan-term program early, so that I have enough time to fly to Kunming and fill out the necessary paperwork. For some reason it can’t be done in Beijing. While there, they will take my passport for about three weeks, preventing me from leaving the province and returning to Beijing. Soooo basically I will be living alone in an unknown Chinese for three weeks with nothing to do until my next program starts. It’s kind of terrifying, but I also feel as though this is a great chance to truly experience Kunming. I’ll have time to hike around Yunnan, chat with some locals, and explore what is often called China’s most beautiful city. 

Side note: One of the steps in this visa process required me to get a physical at a Chinese hospital. It was absolutely nothing like an American hospital, but was a perfect opportunity for me to get a first look at the Chinese medical system. Instead of seeing one physician, I was given a scavenger hunt checklist for every aspect of the physical; each task was performed by a different doctor. I probably saw about eight different doctors; one recorded my weight, one checked my eyesight, etc. However, they also did some weird stuff too. At one point I found myself lying on a table with a doctor painting my stomach with some gel, right before she stuck a bunch of electrodes all over my body. Another doctor made me step into a giant machine, giving me a heavy x-ray guard right before he activated the Flux capacitor; no clue what he was doing. I had to argue to with the final doctor for a bit because I was trying to make sure the needle she was about to use to draw blood was sterile. At times I felt like a test subject, because I had no idea what information they needed for the physical forms. However, it has just made me more curious to the material I might be learning during my summer medicine program.

On New Year’s Day, a bunch of the Chinese roommates took us around the city for some sightseeing. First we went to Yonghe Temple, which is an ancient Buddist temple located in the middle of Beijing. There, we burned incense and watched some locals pay homage to their statues; it was fascinating. We also went to some old clock tower that contained giant drums used to keep time for the town. By far the coolest activity was going to Houhai, a gorgeous lake in the center of the city. Surrounding the lake are tons of shops, restaurants, and street vendors. We even rented bicycles and toured around the lake. Houhai is actually so large that it took around forty minutes to circumnavigate the entire area. Definitely the best place so far.

"You're not supposed to inhale the incense" 
The next day one of our assignments was to go out to a local park and interview some of the retired locals. In China, parks are basically where the cool old people hang out. We walked in and immediately saw a giant dance circle blasting Gangnam Style. I figured it was one of those Asian dance crews you always see back home; but no, it was an old man doing the song’s full choreography. I even jumped in and joined him, but unfortunately the video of that never resurfaced. Talking to the locals was a lot of fun; it still blows my mind sometimes that I can piece together some of what they’re saying.

The final thing I’ll mention, because I don’t want this post to be ridiculously long, is getting a chance to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We haven’t really had any chancing with the program to do the touristy stuff; but, Max and I were lucky enough to have some family friends visiting Beijing, who were gracious enough to show us around the sights and even take us out to an authentic Peking duck restaurant (Sooo gooood). It was pretty surreal standing in Tiananmen Square, and getting up close to the giant portrait of Chairman Mao. The Forbidden City was also much larger than I had expected, with each palace more impressive and beautiful than the last. I wont bore anyone with descriptions, so I’ll just post some photos instead.

Forbidden City. Each building served a special purpose for the emperors. Bed room, foreign relations room, concubine rooms, etc. 

Peking Roast Duck

Great Wall this weekend, cant wait!

I’m in China…and jetlagged!

My plan is to use this blog as a sort of travel journal for myself. I’ve heard from friends returning from abroad that they regretted not writing more down or documenting their journeys. I will attempt to consistently blog throughout my time in China and other parts of Southern Asia. As a science major, I don’t write as nearly as many essays as a college student should, so anyone who cares to read this will just have to bear with me as I try to remember English while tackling the Chinese language.

Right now I am lying in my dorm room in the Xilou building of the Beijing Institute of Education, waiting for my Chinese roommate to arrive. Almost everyone else’s roommate has already shown up, so I’ve been awkwardly floating around to different rooms trying to find someone to talk to. At first I didn’t understand why these Chinese students would even want to room with us Americans, since we aren’t allowed to speak any English to them (language pledge, I’ll address that later), but apparently it’s a very selective process for them to get a spot in our rooms. Our director said that it’s because their dorms usually have anywhere from four to ten students living in a single room, so this is a chance for them to get some sweet housing. This room is bigger than my dorm in Wake Forest, so it’s definitely an upgrade from whatever they have.

I am about 80% positive that this is my third day in Beijing, but we’ve been waking up at 7am every morning and I’m so jetlagged that it all blends together. Yesterday was our first official day on the CET program, which mainly consisted of orientation presentations. After those meetings, though, we got a chance to check out the local shops of our neighborhood. A couple of us went to some giant shopping center, which was basically a Wal-Mart, except nothing made sense. It had all your standard stuff, but the basement doubled as a grocery store and butcher shop. It was terrifying. We were literally walking past carcasses of beef, chicken parts, and pigs’ feet that I freaked out from and thought were a pile of piglets. Overall, it was pretty cool to see just how differently something as mundane as food shopping is compared to America.

Later that night, most of our group decided to come check out the Beijing nightlife. One of the girls in our group has been here since the fall semester, so we relied on her to show us around. The first place we went to was a hookah bar, but we all decided to skip the hookah lounge and head out to the dance area. It was hilarious. Basically it was around twenty of us American students dancing on an empty dance floor, with poles and cages surrounding us, while the few Chinese bartenders blatantly filmed us. (Interesting fact: Chinese people seem to love to take pictures of Western tourists. It’s only been a few days and I’ve already had my picture taken a number of times. They don’t even ask, they just whip out their phones. I feel like Kim Kardashian). After that bar, we went to another club called “Latte” which was pretty unreal. Outside of the venue were several Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked around, and we had to take an elevator up to the main area. Once we got inside, it was a mosh pit of people, clouds of smoke, and really loud American music. There was a woman in her 40’s wearing a Minnie Mouse dress dancing up on the stage. It’s hard to describe this place accurately, but it was definitely not what I had expected the Beijing nightlife to look like. However, it was a ton of fun and great bonding time for the entire group. I’m guessing this place was more of a Western-influenced club, so I’m hoping to get a chance to check out a more Chinese experience.

A brief background on my plans for China: I’ll be in Beijing for a pre-program through the company CET. It is a language intensive program, so it’s basically a month of nothing but Chinese. After that, I am going to the Yunnan Province, which is southwest China, to the city of Kunming. There I will be enrolled in the Middlebury College language program. It will be similar to CET, but I’ll be there until the end of May. After that, I am hoping to be accepted to another program in Kunming, which focuses on traditional Chinese medicine; this program is what I am most excited for. I’ve only been in China for a few days, but so far everything has been great. All the students in my group are really cool, and the teachers seem to be really enthusiastic about helping us improve our Chinese. I’m excited to see how the rest of the month turns out.

This is probably long enough for a first blog post. Classes start tomorrow, and from what I can tell the work load is going to be pretty intense; I better start studying. The language pledge also begins tomorrow morning, but I’ll explain that later.

Zai Jian!