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??