Friday, April 25, 2014

Educational Excursion - Xi'An

Tim here. I’m new to this whole blogging thing, but Maggie is a bit behind –for good reasons, she is beyond busy, so I thought I would contribute to this electronic journal! I had a week break between modules so a couple of my buddies and I took a trip to Xi’an and Beijing. Maggie couldn’t make it because of work, but we are making up for that in two weeks with an anniversary trip to the Philippines! 

Now, I don’t vacation without Maggie, so I called this week of traveling an ‘educational excursion’ which fits really well. The sites I went to over the week were some of the places I have been learning about in history classes since elementary school. These places included Xi’an’s Muslim Quarters, Bell Tower, Terracotta Warriors and Beijing’s Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and Olympic Village. 

First stop – Xi’an. Now, Maggie toured Xi’an two times several years ago, once with her mom and once with her sister, Kaitie. She told me Xi’an was amazing and she didn’t exaggerate.

My friend, Charles and I, flew into Xi’an Sunday afternoon and took a taxi to the Han Tang Inn Hostel. It was clean, conveniently located and cheap – at about $20USD for a private room with ensuite and two twin beds it was definitely affordable. 

After checking in we went looking for dinner. We walked down to the Muslim Quarters, a popular tourist location in the Muslim community of Xi’an famous for Muslim food and souvenirs.  We stopped at a noodle restaurant. The noodles were more like lasagna noodles and were extremely spicy. It was pretty hard to eat, but totally worth the effort – they were really good! 

After dinner, we walked around the Muslim Quarters a bit more then walked to the Bell Tower. We headed back to the hostel early because the next day we headed to see the Terracotta Warriors. 

Now this was awesome but there was one major bummer – Michelle Obama decided to visit this site on the same day. Thankfully, our tour was shortened instead of cancelled. I met a couple of guys from the States who didn’t get to see the Forbidden City because of Mrs. Obama’s visit – so I shouldn’t be too disappointed. 

Insert Maggie to my left

We got to see the farmer who found the warriors on his land as well as learn about the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. The purpose of this terracotta army was to protect him in his afterlife.  He had the artists who worked on this army buried alive so no one would know where he hid it. 

After we finished with the Terracotta Warriors we headed back to the hostel to to get cleaned up. We took an overnight train from Xi'an to Beijing that night, so our time in Xi'an was really short. Before we got on the train we decided to get medical massages - I have never been in so much pain and I never knew my body could bend the way it did! But I felt great after it was over! 

I had never taken an overnight train, and I love anything with a motor so I was pretty pumped about seeing some of China's countryside - which wasn't visible till the next morning, so in the meantime I took advantage of the beds - I know they don't look like much but I was able to get a few solid hours of sleep which surprised me! 

We arrived in Beijing around 1:00 pm and met up with four more of our classmates. I was pretty exhausted after being up so late and the excitement of touring around Xi'an, but the adrenaline of finally seeing Beijing kept me going! 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Life as a Pedestrian

We walk a lot here. For instance, every morning, in order to get to work, I walk about eight minutes to the metro, five minutes to change lines and then 20 minutes from the metro to school. Now, to you, that might not seem like a lot, but compared to life in Greenville, SC, that’s about 60 minutes more than I used to walk. I mean, 30 seconds to my car, another 30 seconds to walk into work – you get the point. All this walking sounds like it would be super good for one’s health, and although I am sure it is, I always feel like I am putting my life at risk – pretty much on a daily basis! 

I have seen everything from pedestrians who were hit by scooters to, unfortunately, an accident that took a man’s life. We joke around about the craziness of Shanghai's traffic but, in reality, paying attention to the buses, cars, scooters and bicycles around you is so important!

We have a couple of visitors coming next month so this started me thinking about the serious consequences of ignorance to traffic procedures here in China. So, to the Shanghai newbie, here are three tips for life as a pedestrian that could possibly save your life – or at least keep your heart beating at a responsible rate. 

1. Pedestrians do not have right of way. The university I attended held the same policy – cars had the right of way. For the most part this worked fabulously! Since there were so many pedestrians, this policy allowed cars to easily make it around campus. Of course, the students and staff knew this, but visitors – well, if you were a car, every student thought you were super nice for waiting while we crossed the street; however, if you were the visiting pedestrian, I am sure you had some student speed up to ‘put you in your pedestrian place’ – clueless as to why the students there were so rude! Well, Shanghai is the exact same way. I have been crossing a street, when it was my turn, and have had cars literally screech their breaks because I was in the way. Thankfully I don’t know much Chinese profanity, but I can only imagine the times I have been yelled at! 

2. Red lights are really only suggestions. For cars going straight, most of the time, red lights hold some importance, but the whole full and complete stop at a red light before turning right – nonsense, I tell you! Near our hotel, there is a traffic light where this can be seen in all its glory. When returning home from the metro, we have to cross a reasonably busy four lane road. Although we have a green light to start crossing, occasionally we are left with just enough time to sprint across the road because so many cars turn right. And don’t even think about trying to cross – the cars won’t stop. Instead of breaking, you will hear horns – constantly – until you get out of the way. 

3. Sidewalks are simply extensions of the road. For cars, occasionally, but for scooters – the sidewalks are a convenient way to get around traffic. I mean, what sane person wouldn’t get out of the way of a scooter coming at you at speeds reaching 40 mph? And don’t even get me started on bicycles. If you are in the way, you will hear constant bells behind you, kind of like you are a dog. Nothing will be said – just bells. 

I will be honest, I miss my car, but there is no way I would ever drive here – these people are crazy! 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Longji Rice Terraces

Most tourists visiting China for a week to 10 days limit their travels to Beijing, Shanghai and maybe Xi’an, and I totally get it – China is just about the same size as the USA. If I had 10 days to visit the States, I know NYC, Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, the Grand Canyon, Disney World (because who doesn’t love Cinderella), Charleston, San Diego among a zillion other cities would make the list, but in reality you have to be selective. Well, in my opinion, if you want to see Shanghai, save yourself the time and visit NYC – I mean yes, it is very cool and if you have the time, by all means, I would love a visit from friends, but Shanghai is very modern and commercialized. In place of Shanghai, I would encourage you to fly further south to Guilin. I think it gives you a better picture of 'real' China. I mean, to over 20 million people, Shanghai is 'real' China, but I am talking about the part of China where minorities are vast, culture is clearly visible on shirt sleeves and new technology (other than the cell phone) hasn't been introduced since the 1300's.

So in search of an authentic minority experience, Tim and I took a two hour drive from Guilin to the Longji Rice Terraces. WOWZERS! This was an amazing day trip! First, we took a group tour so we met a bunch of interesting people including this American lady who works for six months and then quits her jobs and travels Southeast Asia until she runs out of money and returns to the States and works for another six months, then quits her job to travel – you get the point. We also met a couple from The Netherlands who are on a six month sabbatical from work – just traveling around Asia. Could you imagine a six month vacation?!?!?!?

Entering the terraces I was feeling awful – I had a case of car sickness, but thankfully that faded away pretty quickly and my mind became preoccupied by what we saw! 

We were greeted at the entrance of the terraces by women of the Yao minority. They are known for their super long hair as well as wearing bright pink clothing – of course we didn’t get a picture, but if you are interested, just Google Yao minority Longji and you can view tons of pictures. From my understanding, they cut their hair once or twice in their lives. And let me add that their hair was beautiful. You girls know what I am talking about – that friend of yours that loves keeping her hair super long, but in reality it just looks straggly – I am totally guilty so no offense to anyone. Well, with these women the longer the better – it still looks healthy even if it is past their rear-ends! I also noticed they wore really heavy silver earrings – almost looked like gauges. I know it has to do with their culture rather than some phase they went through as a teenager, but I am still not super clear as to why they wear such heavy earrings. I learned a while back that some minority groups wear their wealth in the form of gold earrings instead of putting money in an institution and if they needed something they would use their gold earrings like an emergency fund, so that's my best guess.  Either way, it looked terribly painful, although I was reassured several times that it didn’t hurt at all. 

Walking up the terraces took about 90 min. It was actually pretty steep at parts and definitely got the heart pumping. 

There were small villages scattered throughout the terraces which gave us the opportunity to see the residents’ homes as well as provided a front row seat to their daily life activities such as cooking, laundry and potty training (YUCK)! 

We stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and tried one of the specialties – rice cooked in bamboo over an open flame. The rice is mixed with vegetables, meat and other spices. It was pretty good! 

We also tried a tofu dish and a chicken dish. The biggest difference between the food we eat in Shanghai and the food here was the cooking method. In Shanghai, everything is cooked with gas as opposed to Longji where everything is cooked with charcoal – EVRYTHING had a smoky taste, but everything was delicious! Another specialty of this area was rat, but we didn’t indulge ourselves!

This was definitely an experience I won't soon forget! 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Christmas Adventures in Yangshou

On Christmas morning (can you believe that was over three weeks ago?) Tim and I got up early and took a bus about an hour and a half outside of Guilin to a city named Yangshou. Our first Yangshou adventure was a cruise down the Li River which left me speechless – and if you know me, that is rare! 

The views were amazing but don’t take my word for it - check out these photos. We were blessed to have a professional photographer on our bamboo raft. Watching him take these photos was super entertaining, especially the last photo (my favorite). His camera was literally inches from the water, but it truly captured just how beautiful this place was.  

I apologize in advance for the rest of the amateur photos as they were captured on a Samsung Galaxy.

Being in the southern part of China our expectation was warm weather, but we were so wrong! I wore flats, jeans, a sweater and a coat and scarf, and Tim wore just about the same, sans scarf. The only part of the cruise we didn’t absolutely LOVE was the temperature – we were freezing! I think it had more to do with the fact that is was still morning and there was a bit of a breeze, because later in the day we ate lunch outside and the weather was perfect! Thankfully, midway through our cruise we stopped at an especially scenic area where Tim bought a scarf for 30 RMB (about $5).

We passed by the scenery found on the back of the 20 RMB bill; unfortunately, we were kind of rushed and didn’t get a good picture but still, it was great to see the location in person! 

We eventually arrived in the center of Yangshou and immediately began our search for lunch.

We left pretty early that morning and grabbed a piece of fruit for breakfast which did not keep the hunger pains at bay. Tim’s favorite Chinese food is dumplings so we chose a restaurant that looked clean, busy and of course sold dumplings. We ordered chicken, green beans, dumplings and what we thought was a normal sized bowl of rice (enough for one person – about ¾ cup); instead we got a giant bowl of rice that could easily feed a very hungry family of four so we definitely left feeling full and energized for the rest of the day.

Sitting outside was certainly the best choice as we were able to enjoy the warm sunshine and the gorgeous views surrounding us!   

After lunch we spent a couple hours walking around the city and window shopping. Yangshou is a tourist town for sure, so most souvenirs were seriously over-priced and I knew that if we really wanted something, chances were we could find it in Shanghai for a third of the price. It was nice to play tourist though. When we first arrived in China we didn't have a routine and everything was knew - it was nice to have that sense of adventure and excitement back and to have the opportunity to experience and see new things! 

After we wore ourselves out by walking for a few hours we caught a bus back to Guilin. Since it was Christmas, we wanted something non-Chinese for dinner so we walked to a little Italian-ish restaurant which definitely had a Chinese twist.

I got eggs, toast and coffee and Tim got pizza. I know that may sound like a strange Christmas meal, but we both left quite satisfied.

The restaurant was empty as well which provided a quiet Christmas dinner. 

I couldn't have asked for anything better this Christmas.  

OK- except for family and my mom's red velvet cake, but given the situation, I think it was pretty perfect. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Happy (Belated) New Year!

Where did 2013 go? I have been major MIA from blogging, but with good reason! Tim finished the first module of his master's program and enjoyed three weeks off from school. For three weeks, we were attached at the hip. This past Tuesday was hard as he returned to school BUT starting the second module means he is that much closer to graduation! 

December included celebrations, travel, the flu and new jobs. 

Celebrations: After Tim finished his finals, we went out to celebrate! I told Tim we could go anywhere he wanted for dinner that night and he chose Pizza Hut! Now, there are definitely better places for pizza in Shanghai, but trying China’s version of American restaurants (like McDonald's and Dunkin’ Donuts) is always fun and costing four times more than a typical meal out, being done with school seemed like an appropriate occasion. AND to brag a little on my awesome hubby, he also made Dean's list so we had a little extra to celebrate. Pizza Hut in China is a lot fancier than in the USA. We probably won't go back, but it was fun to look at the menu and see pizzas like seafood pizza and kimchi pizza. We stuck with Hawaiian and a salad - as normal as we could be! 

Travel: We are definitely enjoying our time in China, but Shanghai is the biggest city either one of us has ever lived in. With over 20 million people we were getting a bit tired of having to stuff ourselves into metros and buses and decided to spend a portion of Christmas break away from the big city. Before we left, we had lunch with a couple of our friends, Tim got another haircut and we took a long nap in preparation for our trip.

We traveled via airplane to the southern part of China to a city named Guilin. In order to get to the airport in Shanghai you can either take a taxi for about $30 or you can take the metro for about $2. Since our flight didn't leave until 7:00 pm, time was on our side, so we took the metro. It was packed! The metro transfer is kind of weird - you take the metro for a while and then get off, cross the platform and get onto another metro travelling in the same direction. The issue on this particular day was that the trains on the first leg of the journey were dropping people off, but the second leg trains were nowhere to be found so the platform was ridiculously packed to the point where you were smashed up against the people in front of you! 

Personal space is a luxury in China and we were definitely missing that on the way to the airport. What was supposed to be an hour journey turned into over two and a half hours. Thankfully we gave ourselves extra time. 

Going through security in China always amazes me! We got through with no issues in less than three minutes and Tim even brought a razor. China still gives you refreshments when you travel. Our two hour flight snack included dried dates, a clementine, peanuts and crackers - a little different from the typical snack of cookies, crackers or peanuts and I thought the box was pretty cute too!

We spent four days in Guilin which included walks through parks, a visit to the rice terraces, a boat ride down one of China's most beautiful landscapes and a day of walking over 12 miles to see as much as we could of this smaller (they still have over six million people) city! I will be doing two specific blogs on the rice terraces and boat rides later this week! The pictures are amazing! 

The Flu: As much fun as we had over our break, the flu interfered with a few of our plans. Tim started not feeling like himself during finals and was full fledge sick day one of vacation. I was three days behind, but for some reason it hit me a bit harder and lasted until January 4! New Year’s Eve was spent in bed watching movies, but it was relaxing and to be honest, it was super nice to be completely lazy for an entire day – other than feeling like a bus hit me!!!!

New Jobs: Tim had his eye set on a company that he has been working with for a while and went to interview for an internship back in October. They have never hired a non-Chinese intern at this particular office so he didn't set his hopes too high. He had an acquaintance from the States that helped him arrange an interview and they were impressed enough with Tim that he got the internship! It took a while to get the paperwork in order, but he started in December and has enjoyed it so far! School is super busy, but he is enjoying the challenge and has become super good with time management! 

I have been doing my best to avoid teaching English, but we are here for only a short time, so I gave in, and am teaching at a kindergarten in the morning and tutoring at night. It is keeping me busy, and although not my dream job, I can handle it for the next six months. 

Over all we are doing great and are excited about 2014! On New Year’s Day we reflected on the blessings, challenges and changes of 2013 and can’t thank God enough for this awesome experience. 

May God bless your 2014! 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Since When is Fresh Air a Blessing?

While all my friends from the northeastern part of the USA are posting pictures of freshly powdered winter wonderlands, my friends in China are posting pictures of face masks and smog. To be honest, I wouldn't consider myself to be THAT concerned with the environment. I guess I kind of turned a blind eye to what emissions can do to this place we call earth.

Well, last week I got a wake-up call. Never in my life have I been exposed to such pollution. Coal-burning power plants coupled with the vast number of factories and cars produce massive amounts of pollution. Check out this article from The pollution was honestly so bad you couldn't see anything!

Here is a picture from Thanksgiving morning – the way it should look.

Here is a picture from Monday – and it was on one of the better days we have seen this week.

The cloudy air wasn't just seen outside. I went shopping this weekend and thought the store was on fire - it looked like it was full of smoke; I was wrong - just more smog. 

While your kids were enjoying snow days, Chinese kids were celebrating ‘pollution days’. Seriously – no school because the pollution was so bad!

I always thought face masks were a complete joke and were reserved for those in the painting profession or paranoid germaphobes...well, I have joined the movement.

The effects of pollution are seriously being felt – sore throat, the sniffles and I promise it isn't in my head either. Tim and I run together a couple times a week – maybe three miles at a time. This past weekend we couldn’t get through one mile without sounding like life-long smokers – we couldn't breathe.

As much as I love China, I am so ready for some FRESH air! 

Monday, December 2, 2013

My Favorite Holiday

Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. In my opinion, it has nothing on Christmas, well except for the whole reason we celebrate Christmas – yeah, that is super important. The reason I love Thanksgiving so much is not for the pumpkin pie, football or days off from work, which don’t get me wrong are totally awesome! I love Thanksgiving because that is when my side of the family gets together for a week of nothing but relaxing, mom’s home cooking and a chance to reconnect with my parents and siblings away from the stresses of everyday life. 

Every other year we celebrate Thanksgiving by spending a week together in the Outer Banks. OBX is my happy place – the place I can honestly say I am the most relaxed. Nothing gets better than the ocean during the fall – long walks, no crowds, sweatshirt weather – it is perfect. Well this year, some of my family had a Manhattan Thanksgiving (yes, I am still a little bitter so let’s not talk about it) while others spent turkey day with friends and family across the country. I was a little bummed when I woke up Thursday morning, but it turned out to be a GREAT Thanksgiving.

First, God blessed us with a gorgeous sunrise. The picture isn’t the best, but when Tim and I sat down for our morning coffee and opened the curtains, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was outside. No smog – pure bliss! Thank you, Jesus!

There are a bunch of Americans and students who studied in America in Tim’s program and a few of them organized a Thanksgiving dinner. They had class all day, so we didn’t eat till later, but it was totally worth it! 

From the turkey to the sweet potatoes, all of the America classics were present, including pumpkin pie! I even made an apple crisp in my crockpot thanks to my genius mother – I seriously think no one cooks from scratch anymore! Half the recipes I found required boxed this and canned that! Thankfully it all worked out in the end! 

Although I helped make the dinner, I was extra thankful I didn’t have to clean up! Dishes for 20+ people take a long time and I was in a food coma after we were finished!

I know from the last time that I lived in China that the holidays can be tough when you are away from family, but I certainly am thankful for new friends and the memories that come with it and for the experiences I get to share with my goose!