On the tables

It has come to my attention that when I moved my blog off the WordPress server, the RSS feed may not have updated properly, meaning those of you who were relying on a reader to inform you of my posts might have missed a few.  If you are actually interested in what I have to say, you might want to look into it.

However, seeing how this is Caitlin’s blog, I’m sure that there are many who don’t care the slightest about me or my blog.  If that’s the case, forget everything you just read.

Floating down the Li River

The big thing to do in Guilin is to take a boat down the river from Guilin to Yangshuo. The scenery here is incredible and while the town of Yangshuo is the right size for about 15,000 people, 25 million tourists tramp through it each year. Hence, we found the place to be a cesspool of tourist traps and crooked travel agencies.

While the boat trip was a little pricey, Jeff and I decided we should spring for it and see what all the fuss was about. Our hostel offered to book a “Western” boat tour with an English guide for 370 RMB, but the tour agency downstairs from the hostel offered a “Chinese” tour for 240 RMB. Naturally, we wondered why the huge cost difference. The kind people at the agency explained that a Western tour had an English guide and a Western boat. After much vacillating, Jeff and I decided on the Western tour so that we would have better chances of meeting other young, English-speaking travelers.

As soon as we boarded the bus to go to the boat, we knew something was amiss. The bus was half filled with Chinese, half with foreigners. Our tour guide explained in Chinese that the Chinese tourists would have to be patient because he was going to repeat everything in English for the rest of us. It didn’t take long to figure out that the whole “Western” tour was a scam. Our tour guide’s English was not great, and he hardly told us anything. When we got to the dock, we saw several boats. Most were two-story, beat up looking things filled with Chinese tourists, and one was three stories and full of white people. We didn’t get on that boat.

Here’s our “Western” boat, complete with dragon decorations, Chinese crew and Chinese passengers. As we floated down the river, pirates would hook their boats onto ours and sell trinkets and food to passengers on board.

From China: Moreventures

We felt a little better when we found out that everyone else was getting ripped off with us, and I gave the tour guide some grief as well. Most of the other white passengers had paid 400 to 500 RMB, so I guess we got off easy.

At any rate, the scenery was lovely. One of the mountains is featured on the back of the 20 RMB note, as you can see below.

The area has a lot of caves and towering peaks, which were really stunning.

While tourism has certainly “ruined” much of the area, most people still farm for a living and the forests there look virtually untouched. We saw lots of small villages by the river, where people raised water buffalo and fished on bamboo rafts. It’s not hard to imagine that with years of continued tourism, the area won’t look this way much longer. Tour boats seem to leave every few minutes, polluting the water, where I saw lots of fish belly-up. The people have also latched onto the tourist industry as a new way to get by. As a white tourist, you have to be very forceful with fending off peddlers and crooks, and suspicious of pretty much everyone in the area. Despite the natural beauty, the merits of Guilin are diminishing quickly.

From China: Moreventures

Our tour guide was selling an afternoon tour, but we opted to take our own route, ditched the group and started exploring at Yangshuo.

Rats of the Sky

Down the seemingly hopping pub street from our hostel in Guangzhou was a decent-looking restaurant. We were hungry, and there were a few other patrons in there. The hostess seats us and brings over an empty, sort of dirty, medium sized bowl.

We were a little puzzled, but Caitlin said that a few of her friends warned her that in some places, they do a weird dipping thing with the eating equipment. Finally, when we flagged our waitress down, Caitlin asked what to do.

The lady then opened our little shrinkwrapped package of china (because China is obsessed with shrinkwrapping things), and proceeded to pour a cup of tea. Then she dipped the spoon in the tea, poured the tea into the soup bowl, then dipped the lip of the cup into the bowl, then poured the soup bowl onto the chopsticks into the big waste bowl. Quite a process that we would have had no idea how to do on our own.

Anyway, I wanted to be adventurous, so for my meat dish, I ordered pigeon. It came like this:

From China: Trainventures

I ate it:

From China: Trainventures

And it left like this:

From China: Trainventures

Not surprisingly, it was quite delicious. I don’t know exactly how it was prepared or seasoned, but it was definitely greasy and better than if I caught a pigeon off of a statue in the park and cooked it up myself.

From Xi’an to Guangzhou

One of the cool things about our hostel in Xi’an was that the walls were covered in notes and drawings from the people who had stayed there. As we were leaving, we felt it was necessary to leave notes of our own:

From China: Trainventures
From China: Trainventures

Of course, it’s all true.

One of the differences between China and the US is that while we base child discounts on age, they base them on height. Which in itself is pretty funny, since Asians are notoriously small people. It’s also pretty funny when Caitlin tries to be under the height limit:

From China: Trainventures

Our train ride was the longest so far, totaling 27 hours. We had a difficult time getting tickets, so we ended up with a bottom and middle berth. This proved to be an interesting experience, since several of the guys around us were friends, and the rest quickly became so, resulting in constant card games, which turned into gambling, which led to illegal smoking and selling of train tickets.

It actually surprised me quite a bit how friendly people are on trains. Within the first ten seconds of us being in our bed area, someone already struck up a conversation with Caitlin. It was the usual conversation about how yes, I look Chinese but don’t speak the language, and she is white but does. It was a conversation that was repeated for every newcomer, but thankfully our early friends knew we had already had the conversation so many times, they answered a lot of the questions for us.

Once the train started rolling, our new friends wanted breakfast, so they convinced us to come along. They even paid for us and insisted that we didn’t need to return the favor. I think this was the first sign they thought Caitlin was cute.

It became kind of a theme, at least for me. Since I didn’t understand any of the conversations except the few things that Caitlin translated for me, I was left for hours, looking at the scenery, interpreting facial expressions and gestures.

There were a lot of guesses about us, many of them unreasonable. They seemed to think I look 15, and they didn’t quite know what ethnicity I was. One guessed I was Mexican, another said that Caitlin and I could be siblings. We think that was just a desperate hope that she was available.

By the time they were to get off the train, they were so friendly and hilarious, they made us all exchange contact information and wanted pictures with us. The trains are cramped, so we did our best:

From China: Trainventures

Also, I’m not sure if that’s the usual peace sign or bunny ears.

This guy wanted a picture just with Caitlin so that he could show his wife. I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that.

From China: Trainventures

Once that large group left, we had plenty of conversations with the others around us. One man had limited English, but he was excited to have the chance to practice, so we got by when Caitlin was still sleeping. He mentioned he was in the military, but I was still surprised when I woke up and saw this man:

From China: Trainventures

Turns out he was in the navy, and they’re really envious of the beautiful uniforms the USA gets to wear. Also, Caitlin apparently likes the backlight.

Despite being such a long train ride, it was really fun. When you’re stuck in an enclosed space for that long, some interesting conversations are bound to happen.

Potty Training

I have a fear of toilets that do not have seats. Up until now, all of the toilets we have encountered (aside from those on the trains) are western style toilets — you know, the kind that have two lids and a button on the side or top. I can handle that. Take away the seat, actually, take away the entire toilet and replace it with a hole in the ground, well, I’m a little less comfortable.

Within the first few days of my arrival in China, Caitlin and I had the discussion that you just don’t have to “go” as much here. It seems to be the general consensus among Americans staying here for a while. Number two stays inside of you.

With that in mind, once I saw that our current hostel features gendered holes in the ground, I just figured I would wait out our three days here and go once we left. Of course, we have overnight trains to and from here, so that’s turning into five days of backing up.

I thought it would be fine to slip by Caitlin, but once she noticed my fear of the toilets here, she insisted that I face the inevitable. Eventually (very eventually), I succumbed to her insisting and decided to stop resisting.

Twice after taking a leak, I secretly got into the position I thought I was supposed to use, and I just held it there. Soon, my legs started burning. I had my feet on the little sides, and I was in the ready position, but something just wasn’t right. Fortunately, with Caitlin’s off-site coaching and advice, I figured things out.

Then, last night it struck. I was feeling a little full down there, and it seemed like it was time. I took the slow march down the hall, and got ready. I kept my shorts near my knees like Caitlin told me, and I squatted. And waited.

In that time, I realized I was pretty much in a squatting fetal position — the same sort of position I use when I have really bad cramps and am trying desperately not to let anything leak. The position I was forced into by using the toilet is the very position I use to prevent me from going.

Adding to the problem was the fact that they didn’t want you to put toilet paper in the hole, so I noticed there was a little trash can that started smelling more and more like human feces once I realized what it was for.

Combine all of these ingredients with the fact that I guess I didn’t really have to go, I had to leave the room with no treasure left behind.

Of course, I figured the time would be right again. This time, I was feeling a little crampy — always a good sign. I informed Caitlin of the news, and she held me back, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I believe in you.”

Well, I’ll spare you from all the particular details, because this post is not at all detailed in that respect. Just know that I achieved my goal, and that [China’s food] + [holding it in] = [weird colors].

This post was not approved by Caitlin.

Posted in TMI

Xi’an: The Tour

Having had little rest on our arrival day, I wasn’t very disappointed when we didn’t get to see the terracotta warriors that day.  By the next day, however, I was in much higher spirits.

For my entire stay in China, Caitlin had influenced me into being a local — that is, going places locals go, eating things locals eat.  The few touristy things we did in Beijing were all short trips we took on walks or subway rides.

By the time we got to the lobby to leave for our tour, I was excited that we finally got to play tourist.  We packed a small van full of white people, many of whom were middle aged and spoke little English, and we headed off like naïve sheep to a foreign land.

Since the older people got in first, Caitlin and I were forced to sit in the back of the bus, making snarky comments about it on the way.  It was obvious we were the kids on the trip, but all of the fun younger people sat around us and laughed at the unusually funny things.

The tour started off with the usual semi-awkward period of nobody knowing each other and me being excited, but once our guide Jia jia started talking in her idiosyncratic way, we all started bonding over that. Enough that I took a picture:

Most of the older people kept to themselves and in their own languages, but I did sneak a picture of a funny face one made at the factory:

In the several hours we all spent together, we came to take on many ongoing jokes. Jia jia’s flower was one, since it was a rather common and fairly important part of us all staying together. Once, when she needed to get tickets, she left the flower to the largest member of the group in order for us to all stay together:

Johnny.

Johnny was probably the most interesting person we have met on this trip. When I first saw him in the lobby of our hostel, I was kind of hoping he wasn’t going on our tour because he looked extremely strong and easily provoked. Turns out this is true, but in a good way.

He’s your typical testosterone-filled male, featuring a classic Australian accent and prominent muscles. He was a bit taken aback by Jia jia’s request that he hold the flower, but I think the juxtaposition between the masculinity and innocence really made for a good shot.

In the course of our conversations, we learned that he and his more reasonable friend Jaime were traveling all across Asia, and Xi’an was near the end of their journey. While Jaime works on Wall Street, Johnny is an electrician in a coal mine in Western Australia.

Their travels throughout the vast nothingness of Central Asia proved to be informative and the subject of several conversations. We had heard previously that they aren’t too fond of guidebooks in China, particularly ones like our Lonely Planet that cover the entire country in one book. They had a copy, but a border official confiscated it. Apparently the book is banned.

As the story goes, the guard looks at the book, opens it to the map, and indicates that Taiwan. “Taiwan is a different color than China. This is wrong. Taiwan is China. This book is banned.”

We’re in the process of making a cover for our book.

After everyone was pretty much done with eating, Johnny made it known that he was still hungry. Throughout the course of the meal, he decided it was too difficult to pick up the noodles with chopsticks — which, agreeably, it was —, so he started using his hands. This extrapolated into other areas of the meal as well, but it was a little hard to notice because he cleaned every plate on the table.

We had a giant bowl of soup that was barely touched, so several people were jokingly mentioning it to him. At that point, Jaime warned us that if we dared Johnny to do it, he would. No joke:

There was also a giant plate of rice, which Johnny understandably didn’t want to eat. Instead, he made a fist-sized ball and shoved the whole thing in his mouth:

The experience of being with all those people was hilarious and the most memorable part of the trip so far. I was worried that we would feel overly touristy and cheesy being bussed around, but the people overshadowed all of that by a long shot.

Xi’an: Day One

To be fair, our day started a little roughly.  We got to our hostel around 4 a.m., and after sorting through all the business and whatnot, we finally fell asleep at 4:30.  Our main purpose in Xi’an was to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, so Caitlin got up early to find out what time their tour left.  It turns out it was leaving at that moment, so she rushed back and hurried me to throw my stuff together — which isn’t all that easy to do in a hostel.  Especially the first day, you have to rate all of your items either worth stealing or not, pack them, lock them if necessary, etc.  On top of that, I had to brush my teeth, so by the time we got to the lobby area, the tour had already left, and I was rather grumpy.

We probably had something important that got accomplished, but all I remember was waking back up in the mid-afternoon.

Xi’an is much like Beijing in the climate, atmosphere, and pollution. To top off the tour, we had both spent odd hours being awake and had not eaten all day, so the energy and decision-making skills were not at their best. In any case, we got a good tour of the center of the city, as we were staying just a few blocks from the Bell Tower, the big center:

We also noticed that most of the buildings, whether historic or not, were built with traditional Chinese architecture, leading to strange sights such as this Pizza Hut:

One of our main purposes of the exploration was to find the ticket office to get a trip out of the city, but we were nearly at a loss. We had a map with the location pointed out, but we walked up and down the street, all around the side street, and eventually went inside the bank and asked an official. He took us right outside the bank and pointed out a small, unmarked window with a big line. We stood in the line and found out that all the tickets were sold out. Disappointing.

We went back to our hostel and booked the tickets through the front desk, which turned out to be extremely friendly and helpful, although they did charge a 40 RMB service fee per ticket. We were so happy to get them that we didn’t care much at all. It would have been at least a week until they had an opening.

Since it was Wednesday, we had arranged to meet up with Monica and May for dinner and a little chat. By this point, we were famished and feeling faint, so when we were met with unclear bus directions to their place, there was a lot of grumbling and annoyance between the two of us. Somehow, we managed to get on the right bus in the right direction, but we didn’t know this until we heard the name of the stop.

We quickly convinced May that we should eat dinner first, so Monica met us at the restaurant. It was delicious, but that might have been because it was any form of sustenance. Looking back on it, I think one dish was entirely the starch water leftover from boiling noodles, but it tasted mighty good.

When we got to their apartment, one of the first things I noticed was a miniature oven, nothing more than a big sister to an Easy-Bake Oven, sitting on a large table of its own, in the living room. When I brought this up, both ladies were extremely proud of it. As Caitlin quickly learned from apartment hunting, there are no ovens in China. Anywhere. We were impressed by their find.

I’ve known Monica from California, but she was unaware that it was this particular Jeff that was visiting her, so it was fun to see the shock on her face. Just from walking around the town with her, she really seems to love it here, as we would often have to wait for her to finish playing with and talking to the little kids around the neighborhood.

May was a little different, but just as excited and enthusiastic about everything. She’s a short Filipino lady, but very friendly and warm. They both made us feel welcome and at home, even in an intimidating city.

It turns out that one of their friends was performing that evening, playing the hammered dulcimer at an opera nearby where we were staying. She hooked us all up with some free tickets, so we got to experience something that I never imagined.

Caitlin had seen a classical Chinese opera, but never a modern one, so even she was excited about the opportunity. It turned out to be quite memorable.

We all shared a taxi to the theatre and met up with our liaison to get the tickets. Once we had the giant red tickets in our hands, several Chinese people flocked to us, asking how much we paid for them. It seems they were trying to get some scalped tickets, a sign that whatever we were about to watch was something that Chinese people actually wanted to see.

Once we got inside, we found our way to our seats, which for some reason had all even numbers on the left and odds on the right. The theatre was really nice, and the seats were cushy, although they still managed to keep the Chinese tradition of no leg room alive.

I had never been to a performance or movie in China before, so I was a little shocked at the general etiquette. As people were trickling in, the volume grew with the number of audience members. However, once the lights dimmed and the orchestra started playing, the volume of the audience did not change. The singing was actually so loud, it hurt my eardrums, but it was necessary for everything to be understood over the racket.

It wasn’t a bad opera by any means, even through the language barriers. Luckily, Caitlin’s Chinese is really good, so she translated the gist for me. Here’s my summary:

A man marries a woman with the condition that she will wait for him as he goes off to war. The war is with Japan, China wins, but he doesn’t come home. She remains faithful. He appears only to her, explains that he has to go back to war — civil this time — and that she had to keep it a secret, and he instigates his fulfillment of his quota of children. Everyone thinks she cheated on him, they cast her out. The communists win the war, he comes back, the old people in his family get mad, she dies. Everyone is proud of her devotion to communism.

Also, it was colorful:

Throughout the play, many people were talking and discussing it and other various things. As usual, people liked commenting that there was a foreigner in the audience, particularly one translating for me.

Afterward, Caitlin and I were discussing the play according to our American and literary standards. She was arguing that it made communism seem good, since the couple was willing to die for it. I argued that it was actually bad, since it was communism that prevented the woman from explaining the whole situation which led to her death. The entire conflict was brought upon by communism — a fact which wasn’t negated at all by their willingness to die for it.

Either way, the walk from the theatre to the hostel was really pleasant and amazing. The traditional buildings had modern lights on them, reflecting on the polluted sky in a way that looked pretty cool. Also, it was full of people walking about, so there were the usual people trying to sell those people things, including crazy long kites that stretched all across the sky. It felt almost magical.

Our amazement was cut a little short by the fact that we had tickets to see the Terracotta Warriors early the next morning, and the opera had worn us down.

Train #1

We’ve heard a lot about other people’s train experiences in China.  Some say that you have to do a 37 hour ride in a hard seat at some point because it’s “part of the experience.”  For us, that experience doesn’t really seem to be necessary.

There are four types of tickets you can buy: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers. Hard seats are exactly that, and soft seats are a bit more roomy.  Hard sleepers aren’t much harder than any other bed in China (note: beds in China are really hard), and soft sleepers are pretty much the same, just roomier and enclosed.

Being the experts we are, we got hard sleepers, upper berth.  The bottom berth is the most expensive, and the middle is next, so we were also being a little cheap. But when it comes down to it, when you’re sleeping or resting, it’s actually quite comfortable:

However, when it comes to just plain sitting, it’s a different story altogether:

The bottom berth is generally the most popular because of this, since it’s possible to sit upright and still maintain your head. Of course, they keep these handy miniature socializing areas for the upper berths, which are great for looking cute and out of windows:

The first half of the trip, we were the quiet white(?) people talking in English, particularly about the only other white person on the entire train, who just happened to be three bunks over. Eventually, we got up the nerve to talk to her, and it turns out she was French and knew only a fair amount of English.

We struck up a conversation at the table between our little areas, which happened to be in front of the beds of a giggle of Chinese Olympic volunteer girls, most of whom had been learning English. The conversation was fun and interesting, but we got tired and eventually passed out on our respective beds.

Around 3 a.m., I was rudely awoken by the kind attendant informing me that we were to get off at the next stop. A lot of shuffling and grogginess later, we arrived at the Xi’an station, hobbled outside to remarkably pleasant weather, hopped in an overpriced taxi, apathetically paid, and got out at our hostel to start the first land-based leg of our journey.

The Journey Begins

All right, the journey began last Tuesday, but this is the first really stable internet connection we’ve had.

Tuesday morning, we set out for the train station for a big adventure.  Caitlin had been worrying because I didn’t have a plan or much input on the trip, but my plan was to play things by ear and do things as we go along.  It turns out that China sort of expects you to do this, since we pretty much had to buy tickets the day before we left.

We had heard moderately scary things about train ticketing and travel, so Caitlin had been hesitant to take the plunge.  We finally got to a place to buy tickets and talked to the guy behind the window.  He was mumbling a lot, but Caitlin understood that there was a train leaving for Xi’an at 8:30 p.m.  Since it’s a 13 or so hour ride, it’s best to leave at night, sleep the whole way, and wake up in a magical new land.

Once we walked outside, Caitlin looked at our tickets and realized they left at 2:30 p.m., meaning we would get to our destination at 3:30 a.m.  Suboptimal, and it had us upset for a little while.

By the time we were leaving, however, we were in much better spirits:

We got to the train station two hours early, because Caitlin wanted to make sure everything was in order.  I guess she assumed we were traveling internationally and had to go through TSA…

Once inside, I was struck by the sheer Asianness of the place. Chinese people everywhere!

It amazed me how few white people were there. I figured that with the Olympics freshly over and all, the tourists would be filling this place up, but there was not a Caucasian in sight.

Not only that, but it turns out that it’s the norm for the trains to be pretty much entirely Chinese. Aside from the usual semi-English signs, there was nothing that catered to foreigners. The locations on the giant sign were entirely in Chinese, the menus at the cafe were entirely in Chinese. Even (not surprisingly, though) when Caitlin noted that she wanted rice with her meal, the server yelled across the restaurant, in Mandarin, “The foreigner wants rice!”

Once we were done with lunch, we had a solid hour to kill before our train left.  The Chinese not only like to get to things early, but they also have this weird obsession with lining up.  It doesn’t matter what it is, if they see a line, they have to

  1. get in the line
  2. and

  3. get to the front of the line.

In this case, it meant that no matter what we did, we weren’t getting a seat in the waiting room.  So we waited our time on the floor, getting shooed away arbitrarily by one of the officials.

Finally, we passed through all of the shoving and pushing, finding our way to the platform, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel — the first of many, many tunnels (both literal and figurative).