Monday, December 22, 2008

Holidays and Such

Two weeks off school finally gives me the opportunity to sit and catch up with life and what has happened in the last 4 and a half months since I last posted.

It has been just over 4 months since I have moved down to San Diego and things are slowly but surely coming together. I ended up moving in with someone I barely knew but she and I had more than the love of the same man in common. The good thing is that man is my best friend and not a romantic love interest. I only met Tricia once, the last time I was in SD in 2006 but she was kind enough to offer me her spare room and her friendship despite all the situations that would have made it awkward. We ended up living together for almost 2 months and having possibly too much fun while we were at it.

At end of August things were still suffering from still not having a job so I took a job at a little grocery store, working as much as I could. Most of the rest of my time was spent at the beach as its free and of course because its fun.

The last week in September I was finally hired at a middle school here in San Diego. I am now one of two 8th grade Physical Science teachers and I am starting to enjoy the position and my students. Within a week of getting a job, I was able to find a cute 1 bedroom apartment with the biggest bedroom closest I have ever seen - a match made in heaven.

Adam came home on leave and it worked out perfectly with my week-long Thanksgiving holiday so that was AWESOME. We spent our time doing a whole lot of nothing but did take time to watch a lot of movies, visit the wild animal park, and jump out of a plane at 13,000 feet. Nothing says fun like 120 mph free fall!

Three days after Adam left, my friend Eoin came from Ireland on the initial leg of his around-the-world trip for the next year. He spent most of the week on the couch as he had to have some dental work done but was up and running by the weekend. We took a road trip to Las Vegas for the weekend as I was set to participate in the LV Marathon. It was fun to see the City of Sin through fresh eyes and we had a blast enjoying all of the American debauchery...and I am pretty sure we covered every aspect of debauchery in our less-than-24-hour visit. As I was still working two jobs and being slightly lazy, I definitely wasn't ready to do the whole marathon so I just did the half. I hope to get my stuff together and really train for a full marathon and rock it next summer. Because the world is so amazingly small, I was fortunate enough to run into a friend from high school while going into the MGM. Meagan came to run the marathon too and in another act of fate, we ran into each other again before the race. Guess that obnoxious song is correct...after all.

December has gone by super fast. I finally quit the grocery store. I am starting to feel more comfortable with my teaching role. I am starting to make more friends than just Tricia in SD. I have rekindled my love for men in uniforms - cops in particular. I am looking forward to not being so stressed with the two jobs thing so I can spend more time coaching Girls on the Run this next season, feel like a better teacher, and have more of a life in general.

As it wasn't feasible for me to head to the beautiful village of Medford this year, I took the short drive over to Phoenix to spend Christmas with Craig. Apparently I have brought some rain from San Diego with me but I would like to blame Eoin for bringing it down from Seattle first. Now I just have to figure out what to do with myself for the week and will be entertained to see how much of my "list" actually gets done.

I have a job, an apartment, some friends, and a California license. Let's see if I can manage to stay here for more than a year. To anyone who might be feeling the travel bug, I have a comfy futon and the door is always open.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Exodus

"All roads lead to home."
 
Despite varying ideas of what home really is, this quote is easy to get for a girl who has rarely lived far from the I-5 corridor. I came back to my previous home of Seattle upon my return from China. Granted, I haven't lived there in over 2 years so it is more like home-once-removed. I did claim it as home for the past 2 years as it was for 9 years of my adult life. However, upon my most recent visit I realized it really isn't my home any more. People and places were foreign in general and I felt out of place.
 
I wasn't able to go home (place where I was born) before my grandfather passed away, but I was able to make it home (the USA) in time to call Mom to let him know I was safely back on US soil and he could stop worrying about me. Due to my lack of employment, I was able to spend a week with my grandmother keeping her company and running errands. I think that act in itself means more to my grandpa than any teary goodbye.
The Gods smiled on me in that at the last minute, my friend Brian was able to help me make my big move to California. All of my belongings were in storage in Seattle so I had to load up a 16 foot trailer and then hitch my car onto a tow trolley on the back. I had convinced myself I could do it solo, and I am sure I could have, but driving it the 1300 miles with Brian there made it a lot easier. We left Seattle right at rush hour on a Tuesday (bad idea) and headed south on I-5 for what would be the next 1,347 miles and almost exactly 48 hours. We drove through my old homes of Vancouver and Medford then past my old homes of Santa Cruz and Watsonville and into my new home of San Diego. We stopped 2 times to sleep, 7 times for gas and 1 time for an over heated engine.
 
That long in a car gives you lots of time to think. I thought a lot about this new life that I am starting here in San Diego and what I want for it. I thought about how stupid it really is to ask people where they are from. If you want to get to know someone new, why not ask them where they've been, what they've learned, and where they are going next. Yea, I am from (born in) Medford, but what does that tell you about me? I thought about why people would tailgate someone driving a 16 foot trailer and towing a car. I thought about delicious Chinese food.
 
I wish I could tell you that things here in SD are wonderful, but I can't. At least not yet. I feel pretty miserable here so far and I really have no one to blame but myself. I have put myself in situations where I knew my heart would be hurt and it has. I made my expectations of people and life too high and I have been disappointed. I keep telling myself that things will get better "if" and "when"...now I guess I just have to wait. I feel like I don't belong here but I'm not sure where I belong. I feel like all the things I had hoped for in my new life in sunny southern California don't exist. I thought I had everything figured out but I don't. I feel alone in crowds and like an outsider among friends. This new home isn't home yet.
 
Despite how totally wretched this update is, I know some of you usually really like my blogs so this is for you: I am no longer going to be mass emailing my life stories. If you are on MySpace you already know you can get them there. The other option is to get the blogs from my blog site. That is http://rachaeltarshes.blogspot.com/  You don't have to be a member to read my blogs on Blogspot and you can have them sent directly to your email if you don't want the hassle of coming to the site to check to see if I have anything amazing to say. (Usually not.) As I am still without my own computer, I can't update pictures and might send out one more mass email once that is done for those of you who want to see my last trips in Asia.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Re-re-reculturalization

Spending a week in Japan before coming back to the States was definitely a way of easing myself back into American culture. Granted Japan is quite different from China, but not as shockingly different from the US.

The first thing I noticed about Japan is how quiet it is. I heard literally one car horn the entire week I was there, people's cell phones don't ring in public, you can't hear anyone else's music, and when people are speaking to each other you have to strain to hear what they're saying. Almost 12.6 million people live in Tokyo but you'd never guess it - it's clean, quiet, and often not crowded. The Tokyo metropolitan area is composed of 23 wards and the outlying areas consist of 27 separate cities, 4 island districts, and 1 county.  Heather and I spent our first 2 nights in Japan in the Asakusa area of Tokyo which lies just northeast of the main Tokyo subway station. The main points of interest in those few day were the Imperial Palace East Gardens which contain the ancient remains of Edo Castle, Meiji Shrine (the first of many Shinto shrines), the famous Harajuku area, and the Sapporro Beer Museum. The shrine was probably the most interesting as I don't know much about Shinto religion...if it can be called that. Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan that is a collection of folk rituals and practices that have been mixed with ancient myths associated with the forerunners of Japan's imperial family. One of the biggest differences is that in Shinto, there are heaps of gods who are believed to live in the natural world.This "heap" includes local spirits and global gods/goddesses.These gods are often enshrined in...you guessed it, shrines. They can be formal buildings for gods/esses or rocks/trees/etc that are believed to contain spirits. Every day people can also be believed to be/contain gods if they do great deeds during their lifetimes. Shinto didn't actually have its' name until it was needed to distinguish it from the imported Japanese religion of Buddhism (around the 6th century).

The third day we took a bullet train to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital and home to over 17 UNESCO sites and 1.5 million people. Kyoto didn't give me quite the impression I was expecting after reading about it in the LP. They claim it to be a culturally rich city that ranks with the likes of Paris, London, and Rome. Maybe we didn't go to the right spots. What we did see was Nishi Hongan Temple (home of the Jodo Shin-shu school of Buddhism), the Fushini-Inari Shrine (dedicated to the gods of rice and sake),  and the Yasaka Shrine (Gion neighborhood guardian is enshrined here). The Inari shrine was the most interesting as it had huge red-orange archways called torii lining a 4km pathway up the surrounding mountain. In general I felt that Buddhist temples in Japan were quite boring, painted in bland tones of white and brown and without much decoration. This is in stark contrast to the bold red and yellow temples of China. Inside the temples there was often some decorations but still sparse. Before we left Kyoto we also saw the Kiyomizudera Temple (silver roofed but a let down), the Ginkakyju Temple (where we walked through the dark and touched a Buddha belly to simulate our rebirth into a world free of our previous sins), the Kinkakuju Temple (covered in actual gold). We diligently stalked all the areas where geisha's were supposed to be easily spotted but alas saw none.

For Heather's last night in Tokyo we hit up the supposedly hot social scene of Roppongi, took a gander at the Tokyo Tower (modeled after the Eiffel Tower), and checked out the bird's eye view of the city from Tokyo City View. The City View was quite disappointing because the ticket included other attractions withing the tower that we couldn't do and 1/4 of the 360 degree walk around view was closed for a private party. The next morning we went to Senso-Ji Temple near our hostel and checked out the surrounding bazaar. The temple got its fame for housing the golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist God of Mercy (which has never been verified) and was supposedly fished out of a river by two fisherman.

After Heather left that afternoon I headed to the crazy shopping area of Ameyoko Arcade (the city's famous post-WWII black market area) and wandered through the Ueno Park (Tokyo's first public park). I then took a train west of Tokyo to Kawaguchi-ko  city on on of the 5 lakes that surrounds Mt. Fuji. While Fuji isn't still covered in snow, the weather at the top is still below freezing so I didn't climb it. The next morning I took a cable car up to a vantage point and saw what could be seen. It's infamous for being covered in clouds so I made it just in time. On the way back down from the cable car, the clouds moved over the peak and down the mountain and it stormed.

While heading back to Tokyo, I stopped in Yokohama, Japan's 2nd largest city with almost 3.6 million residents. It had a population of about 600 when it was made an international port in the late 1800's. I went mainly just to check it out and visit its Chinatown but also got to ride on its Ferris wheel  - one of the largest in the world. The Chinatown was lame and the Chinese food I bought was terrible. Yes, I already missed Chinese food.

The next day I was scheduled to leave Japan in the late afternoon so I hopped on the train one last time and headed south again to the tiny city of Kamakura (another ancient capital city) and saw its Giant Buddha or Daibutsu, which is 11.8 meters tall and made totally of bronze. Its original temple was washed away by a tsunami but the Buddha remains just sitting on a platform in the middle of a park.

My departure from Japan was terrible as I caught the wrong train to the airport and it took me almost 3 hours to get there. I arrived less than an hour before my flight and had to rush to the gate. I didn't sleep the whole ride and there were only 2 movies to watch - one of which I had already seen. My flight was delayed and the food was also quite terrible. However I did arrive safely back on American soil so I should be happy about that.

I am now spending my time doing much of nothing while I should be preparing for my exam next week. Hopefully San Diego will provide me with a job, a place to live, and a passing score. What more could a girl ask for.

At this time, I am sorry to report that I have no current pictures as I am without my own computer so you will just have to wait with baited breath.




Wednesday, July 2, 2008

CD313: Leaving China

My final goodbye to the Motherland was unceremonial to say the least and rushed for sure. The cruise on the Yangtze was amazingly beautiful at times while being incredibly disturbing in general. Almost everything we did or saw was presented by a local guide as being provided by the Yangtze 3 Gorges Dam Project.

"There was an ancient minority village here but now it is underwater. Thanks to the dam the villagers now live in nice new houses much higher up on the hill."

"This use to be a fishing village but now thanks to the dam, there are no fish left in the water so the fishermen/women now work in constructing new villages."

The dam itself is immense. Words can't really express its physical size. It is set to be finished next year and fully operational by 2011. In the end, it will produce 22,500 megawatts of energy. It was initially predicted to supply energy to 10% of China's people, but now with the growing population, it will provide only 5%. It will reduce the coal consumption by 31 million tons per year which in turn reduces 100 million tons of greenhouse gases, millions of tons of dust, 1 million tons of sulfur dioxide, 370 thousand tons of nitric oxide, 10 thousand tons of carbon dioxide, and a significant amount of mercury from being released into the atmosphere. It also will also require the relocation of over 2.3 million people. in October of last year, the government said that they are suggesting another 4 million people who live near the dam should also be moved. Over 1,300 archaeological sites have been flooded, 80% of the land in the area is experiencing erosion which is causing 40 million tons of sediment to slide into the river every year, 172 species have become endangered and at least 3 are believed to be extinct.

At the end of the tour we stopped in a city called Yichang which lies 40km south of the dam. We went to the city museum, which was made possible by the dam water's flooding of a small island which was an ancestral burial ground for the Ba people - who lived some 3000 years ago and have no written history so very little is known about them. The most troubling thing was that the tour of the museum ended in a room filled with treasures...ancient, priceless, burial relic treasures which the government is willing to sell because they need money for the development of relocation cities.

After the cruise I meant Heather back in Shanghai. We spent 3 nights there and the weather was miserable most of the time. Torrential rain and crazy humidity don't make for good times. I did get to see some new sites, namely the Jade Buddha Temple and  YuYuan Bazaar which I didn't have time to see before. After Shanghai we headed south to Hangzhou. Sadly, the weather there wasn't much better. After 2 nights we came back to Shanghai for one last night in China before heading East. Our time wasn't really spent doing much of interest...we did put together a 3-D wooden carp puzzle which amused us for a while.

Early this morning we headed to the airport not realizing we'd be stuck in the middle of rush hour. It took over an hour and a half to travel the 50km to the airport and Heather almost missed her check-in time. While waiting on the tarmac for air traffic to clear i realized i was leaving China, perhaps for good. While it seems like i have been waiting for this day it some how managed to sneak up on me and i realized it didn't seem to matter as much as I expected as my excitement for Japan and then the US over shadowed any feelings of sadness.

We are now in Tokyo and my initial impressions of Japan are limited: clean, quiet, orderly.  I of course will have more to say once I see more and I am sure that will happen in the week that I am here. No pictures will be updated until I return the the US however so these lowly words will have to do for now.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

CD304: Moving Out and Moving On

Early yesterday night, I left Pingxiang. I am 99% sure that I will never go back there and I am 50% unsure of how I feel about that. Don't get me wrong, I am wanting to come home and there is nothing super about PX but...I just am not sure how to express how I feel. This last week was so super rushed I felt like I didn't really have enough time to do anything that I wanted to do before I left but I also can't tell you what else there was that I wanted to do.

I am now in Shanghai killing time before I fly out this afternoon for a 4 day cruise on the Yangtze. Heather will be in Shanghai the day after the cruise ends so I will meet her here and we will travel around Shanghai and who knows where else for about a week. That will be my last week in China and then she and I will head to Japan for a week before coming back stateside. My official arrival date is July 8th for those of you that care and are diligently marking it on your calendar.

My first month back home will most likely be crazy. I have to go to San Diego to have an interview (wish me luck), take an intense 5 hour all inclusive science mastery test (wish me more luck) and find a place to live (God willing). That is just 1 week. I also have to see friends, spend some time at home in Medford visiting the fam, go through all the stuff in my storage unit that I haven't seen in 2 years and  then pack a moving truck and drive it down south.

Though I am not technically done with China I figured I would give you all a short (consolidated) recap of the past year.

Things I will not forget:
1. Liu Yan Jun
2. Shaolin monk doing sweet Chinese Gung Fu on me in a restaurant
3. Lady almost falling out of the train
4. Spin the bottle
5. Singing on a stage for a televised event

Things I will miss:
1. Not having to tip (perhaps linked with #1 below)
2. Everyone thinking I am special/interesting because I am white/foreign/different (haha)
3. Being able to argue prices
4. Relative cheapness of items
5. Everything I do being "lovely" or "clever"
6. Being complimented on my "good English"
7. Real Chinese food - American Chinese food is total crap
8. My ridiculously light work load and relatively extravagant pay
9. Trains being a viable and cheap travel option
10. Movies only costing $1 or less

Things I would have never gotten use to:
1. Bad customer service (perhaps linked with #1 above)
2. Unattended children 5 and under
3. People randomly burning things including plastic and Styrofoam
4. Unattended children being allowed to play with said burning piles
5. The volume at which Chinese people speak to each other
6. Hating to hear the word "hello"
7. People not understanding why I would want to go back to my country but laughing if I ask if they'd want to live anywhere else than China
8. Baijao - Chinese white wine, a liquor made with rice and gasoline I think :)
9. Chinese style toilets and squatting
10. High heels being the universal woman's shoe and reasonable to be worn for any occasion/type of weather



Friday, May 23, 2008

CD 274: Journey to the Center of the (Chinese) Universe

I have returned victorious.

The Center of the Universe is of course Beijing. No, I did not run with the torch. No, I did not participate in the Olympics. Chinese people are supposed to be wise in all things Chinese, but yet they ask me these questions - even the teachers who should really know better. What I did do, not that it's as great as participating in the Olympic torch relay or in the Olympics themselves, but I participated in Adventure Marathon's Great Wall Marathon 2008. <the crowd goes wild in cheers and applause> Thank you, thank you! You are too kind.

I got to Beijing after a relatively quick 17 hour over-night train ride Friday (the day before the race). I knew I shouldn't be too busy so I didn't have much planned. I picked a hostel that my Lonely Planet said was next to the race day pick up - Beijing International Hotel, but made no real other plans.The city itself is huge and everything is totally spread out. There is a subway and an intricate bus system but neither seem to work to well - and I am really terrible with buses. I went by taxi to get my race day stuff then used my trusty map to discover I was "close" to the Beijing Zoo. (I will use "close" as in "close here means in totally relative terms and not very close at all") The zoo is supposed to be terrible but their new aquarium fantastic, so I decided to give it a go. The zoo was indeed miserable. The place stunk of fresh paint and miserable animals. For how terrible the zoo was, I really spent too much time there and not enough time at the aquarium but I just HAD to find the Giant Panda house which proved to be slightly allusive. There were workers everywhere frantically building and painting and apparently totally neglecting the animals in general who were mostly in filthy, tiny cages and all looked desperately distraught at their predicament.

Like I said, the aquarium was supposed to be all the rage, and it deserves every syllable! It's the largest inland aquarium in the world and absolutely stunning. The whole first part is set up like an Amazon rain forest and the fish are in these fun open tanks set into faux rock formations. If I come back as a fish, I will ask to be a fish in this aquarium. The coral reef exhibit was similarly spectacular with a huge aquarium with all the fishes living together in harmony with rays and corals and sea turtles (oh my!). There was also the obligatory giant shark tank and a great looking shark that literally had teeth so big it couldn't shut its mouth. It was so comical I took about a million pictures. Sadly I ran out of time to see the mammal exhibit or find the sweet piranha tank. They also had one of those penny machines (where it makes the flat penny with the picture on it) but the booth was closed to get the necessary tokens. If you know me well enough, you know this is like throwing salt in a wound for me.

I wandered back into the city center and stopped to have a look at Tian'an Men Square. I got there when they take the flag down at night and it's quite the to do. I wouldn't have really cared but it is one of the major things all of my students say they'd want to do if they could go to Beijing so I managed the crowds and the long wait to watch the military boys march out in formation, cross the street, take down the flag, and then go back. It was just about that exciting. I then got back to my hostel after some crazy bus/subway maneuvers to find that a person was in my room - and snoring loudly. I had hoped I'd be lucky and be solo. No such luck. It's at this point my story takes a turn for the worse. I had wandered all around my hostel looking for the Beijing International Hotel to no avail so I ask the girls at the front desk. They innocently tell me that this hostel use to be a hotel - The FeiYing Beijing International  Hotel but there is another BIH on the other side of town. Craptastic! As pick up is at 245 I just accept I will have to take an expensive taxi there in the am, get up earlier than expected, and deal with these damn lemons life keeps chucking at my head. So I head back to my room and the snoring man - its like 8pm... and I have no idea how I am going to get my stuff ready. I have to check out in the am and leave my bag to pick up later and I have to be up at like 2am so I don't have much time to do anything in the morning. I drag my stuff into the bathroom thinking I can work without disturbing Snoring Man - though if he doesn't wake himself, God only knows what will. SM has managed to get the ENTIRE bathroom wet and his jumbo sized pants have apparently/maybe been washed and are hanging on the curtain rod. His shaving stuff is all over the sink...it's just terrible. I do what I can and just decide to leave my stuff in the bathroom so I can get ready quickly in the morning. It's about 10 by the time I get to bed, he is still snoring and I notice that his jumbo sized underwear has apparently/maybe been washed as is draped all over his chosen bed. Thank god he wasn't on my bed. I am busy trying to force myself to sleep and thinking about how the hours between then and when I have to get up are slowing dwindling, when a worker comes in to make up another bed and wakes me up. It's 11 by then. He finally leaves and I just get to sleep when another roommate joins us. It's now 12. This guy was dragging in a drum set or something and then setting it up - in and out for God only knows how long. He finally feel asleep about 130 but my sleep time was up so I just got up and got ready. So much for the good night's sleep the night before the big race.

Buses were supposed to leave the (correct) Beijing International Hotel at 2:45 but by 3:15 we were still standing in the parking lot waiting for them to get enough buses there for all of the participants. Once we all finally get piled into buses and headed on the road to the wall, I start talking with the woman next to me. She too is from the US, living in China (Hong Kong) and doing the race solo so instead of getting the sleep we need, we chat the whole ride up. There were 17,000 participants in 4 races (5K, 10K, 1/2 marathon, full marathon)

Over 100 people ran the full marathon. I decided to run with my new friend, Missy, since the companionship would be nice and I am sure encouragement would be needed. The start was fine enough - we went straight up a hill and on to the wall. The stairs were steep, narrow and tall...everything we'd been warned about. Coming out of the final tower and heading to the main part of the race, I got stung by literally the biggest bee in the world. I'm not sure if it was the bee itself or the combination of the sting and my running, but the inside of my arm where I got stung became pretty swollen and I could swear that I could feel the toxins curing through my body. (Note: I still have a mark from this sting that is literally 6 inches long.) The majority of the race was through countryside villages though we did run along a fair patch of road. The weather was good. It was clear and moderate but not really sunny. The air was okay, but the section along the road was difficult because of some tree stuff floating in the air (possibly cotton wood trees) and the big truck exhaust. Most of the people in the villages came out to cheer us on or to just stare but it was encouraging none the less. I am sure they were all saying - "Look at all the stupid foreigners. There's more than last year..."

Perhaps around kilometer 26 I drank some supposed "Gatorade" that made me crazy sick so Missy went on ahead and I attempted to not die. I feel no shame in admitting that I did walk here and there but probably for less than 10 minutes of the whole race - not counting the actual part on the wall. True torture came around kilometer 37 when we come out of the back pastures of the villages after dodging rocks and uneven ground for kms and then we run right by the finish line and back onto the wall to do it again backwards. By that time, people were literally crawling up the stairs and cursing the heavens for having ever though that this race would be a good idea. I am pretty sure I died there on the wall at some point. I had the goal of trying to catch up with Missy until then and then I just had the goal of not lying on the ground in the fetal position and giving up all hope.  Once I saw that we were at the end of the wall and I reminded myself that the whole way to the finish line was downhill, I caught some divine 3rd wind and just went for it. It also helped that I mistakenly thought I was running for 40km instead of 42km.  For the last bit I was passing people like a woman possessed coming down the hill (who walks down a hill towards the finish line?) and then another woman had caught up with me and we pushed each other to the finish line. It was very high-school track-esque and in my mind I was definitely thinking "Like hell I am going to let you beat me now old lady!" I finished at 4:59:42. My only goal was to finish so that was good enough for me. Missy was there waiting at the finish line too so that was great! We then scarfed down some Subway sandwiches and swapped race stories.

Missy then becomes my guardian angel because after hearing my stories of Captain Underpants and my hostel, she insists  I come and stay with her at her 5 star hotel suite she is supposed to be sharing with her girlfriends who couldn't come. Gee...twist my arm. We also got foot massages and had dinner and wine to celebrate her birthday which was the next day. My body was aching in places and ways I never knew it could and we were both pretty hilarious trying to walk up and down the stairs. Sleeping in a huge, comfy bed was exactly what I needed. Missy left early the next day but worked it with the hotel that I could check out and I got to enjoy her free fancy breakfast in the private club with a view of Beijing so that wasn't too bad either.

Despite my aches and pains, I knew my time in Beijing was limited so I hobbled through the next couple days seeing what there was to be seen. I would have to say my overall feeling of Beijing is that the city completely lacks character, which is a shame. The city is geographically large but empty. It is old but new. It is clean but still dirty. The city is a tourist destination but not tourist friendly. Its population is nearing 18 million but there is no one out and about. In my 5 days in the city I mastered the subway but failed miserably with the buses at every opportunity.

As this is turning into quite the novel and I spent a total of 6 days in Beijing I will recap the rest and suggest you check out the INSANE number of pics I took.

The Summer Palace is an immense park northwest of the city and is where royalty would come during the summer to escape the insufferable heat of the Imperial Palace. There I saw a large lake, many pavilions, numerous gardens, a deserted pagoda, a very long corridor along the water's edge, a marble boat, the stunning Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion and Cloud Dispensing Hall, and a big Buddha.

The Peking Man Site is outside of the city about 60km to the SW and totally off the beaten path. For good reason - its boring as all get out. This is the location of Dragon Bone Hill in the Zhongkou village were the remains of the human ancestors from some 500,000 years ago were first found in the 1920's. I am a sucker for science, but other than being a historic site, there isn't much there. I saw where they found some of the first fossils and toured the rather small museum but left feeling like it verged on a waste of time.

The Temple of Heaven is quite possibly the symbol of Beijing. And it is quite spectacular. The Round Altar is what people think of when the Temple of Heaven is mentioned. It was originally the stage for solemn rites and is known now as "the most perfect example of Ming architecture".

Tian'an Men Square is technically the large area that runs from the Forbidden City in the north through the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, and all the way down to the 2 ancient city's Front Gates. It is the world's largest public square after all. The square as we know it today is a modern creation because it ancient times, part of the Imperial Palace went far into the square area.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'an Men...go figure) is hung with the vast likeness of Mao who looks out at his own mausoleum. It was formerly the largest of the four gates of the Imperial Wall that enclosed the imperial grounds. It was from this gate that Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of on October 1st of '49. Passing through this gate, you can get to the Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City.

Forbidden City/Imperial Palace: The palace was given its more popular name because it was off-limits to use commoners for some 500 years. It is the largest and best-preserved cluster of ancient buildings in all of China. It was the location for 2 dynasties, the Ming and the Qing - the people of both eras not leaving the palace walls unless they really had to. It was quite spectacular. I wandered around trying to see every last inch of it that I could and tried to imagine the imperial life. There is a museum woven into the remaining buildings so you get a healthy dose of history while you wander as well.

Zhongshan Park is immediately to the west of the palace and doesn't offer much other than views of the palace walls and the palace moat.

Ming City Wall Ruins Park has been built...you guessed it, around the ruins of the Ming inner city wall. The watch tower is supposed to be the best part but its covered and under construction and I got there too late for tickets. This wall section is about 2km long and was just restored in '02. A sign at the site says restoration came from bricks donated by local people. The area was all apartments so that might explain why the restoration isn't too impressive. The park, however, is stunning.

Zhengyang Men and Qian Men are the two "Front Gates" at the southern end of Tian'an Men Square. Qian Men is the southern most structure and the technical front gate. It  was once open only to the Emperor himself on his way to and from the winter solstice ceremony at the Temple of Heaven or his inspection tours of the southern regions. Qian Men is one of the only  gates to survive with its gatehouse (Zhengyang Men) and  arrow tower (Jian Lou) in tact.

Jingshan Park is just north of the Forbidden City and was created from the earth excavated to make the moat around the palace. Its views were amazing and the park itself was beyond beautiful. It is believed to protect the palace from evil spirits and was the chosen spot for the last Ming emperor to hang himself.

The Bell Tower and Drum Tower weren't much to look at and the originals were burnt down many times and the last rebuilding is from the 18th century or so.

The strongest feeling I got from Beijing was really while I was at Jingshan Park and I will end with that: I want to grow old like the Chinese I was to get up before sunrise to climb to the top of the tallest hill and yell at the sun and then peacefully stretch as the day slowly wakes up. I want to go to the park to walk around and enjoy time with my grandchildren. I want to play an aggressive game of badminton with my husband - us both egging the other on as to who will be the victor. I want to stand in the shade with my girlfriends and play hackysack while we gossip about the young people. In the afternoon I want to ride my bicycle to the market to by fresh food for dinner. And at night I want to go to the center square and dance in a big group under the lights of a fountain.

Pictures will soon be too many in number at http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/tarshor/ChinaBeijing

Monday, May 12, 2008

Earthquake

As many of you know, there was a huge quake in China yesterday. While the epicenter was 3 provinces away from where I live  we did not feel it here in Pingxiang. The magnitude of the quake changes depending on what source you are reading from, but it was in the high 7's at least. The death tolls are also incredibly high - 10,000 and growing steadily. The quake hit during work and school so many people were trapped in or killed by falling buildings. I have no idea what China's earthquake codes are, but I know most people build their own houses of brick so they can't be that structurally sound. My thoughts now only go to the victims, their families, and the people attempting relief efforts. I hope that China accepts the foreign help it is offered and that foreign disaster relief is offered freely and quickly.

Friday, May 9, 2008

CD 262: Two Months 'Til American Soil

In 2 months (minus 2 days) I will be returning to the good ol' U.S of A. I'm ready. Things here are definitely winding down. There are only 6 more weeks of school and most likely 2 of those weeks will be mostly spent doing final exams. I find that my students are desperately sad at the prospect of my departure and this puzzles me. Many don't understand why I am not wanting to stay here forever. I have simplified things by saying I want to go back to America to find a husband and start a family - this is something they can understand. By their standards, I am quite past my prime for marriage and the such. My classes are going so-so. I am pretty sure all my juniors all cheated on their midterms. The most blatant cheaters threw temper tantrums saying they weren't the only ones cheating, just the only ones caught so now I have to retest all of them. This is also apparently incredibly unfair. They then proceeded to tell me that it was partially my fault they cheated because I didn't take away their books/bags/papers/etc. My bad. Cheating is widely accepted here in China but if you ask any teachers or department heads, they say to the contrary. All of my high school students cheated on their exam and their head teacher said, "Maybe they were too busy studying for their other exams to study for yours." Oh, yes. Well then, let's just let them cheat. Not. The Oral English classes are so much easier - you can't cheat when you are just talking. Thank God for that.

The weather here in Pingxiang is quite miserable and reminiscent of Seattle, which is slightly comforting, all at the same time. It rains almost every day and when it storms the rain comes from all directions and floods the roads. The skies are often gray but the rain clouds  make it the most dreary. After the rain it often turns into a sauna and I am sure we are breeding half of the most dangerous/annoying bugs in the pools of water outside our doors. Despite being wet, sticky, and generally uncomfortable, the weather also makes me quite lazy as the idea of running in torrential rain inside a steam bath isn't high on my list. Speaking of running, my marathon is next weekend. I am excited to go but at the same time think I am perhaps not fulling realizing the incredible physical toll this will take on my body. I mean, its only 26.2 miles, how hard can it be? The Great Wall is only super steep in some places, not the whole route. I'll be fine...

Last week we had a 3 day holiday, which Andreana and I turned into 4 days and took a little trip. I mean, we're American - we don't work on Sundays! We went to the last real "top" destination in China - Guilin. Its views are written about in poems and its scenery is famous among painters. The beautiful Li River that runs though the city is surrounded by strange limestone karsts that are all mostly covered in trees. The whole city was covered with trees of all kinds - it reminded me of Seattle - the Emerald City of China perhaps.Most of everything there was to do was climbing to the top of the peaks and seeing the river or going to the river and looking at the peaks. We did do a pretty cool night tour along the rivers and lakes through the city. The next day we took a 4 hour cruise down the river to a small town called Yangshuo. The scenery along the way was amazing. It was pretty touristy but the only real thing to do was nothing. So we did a lot of that...and some shopping too. We stayed there for one night then went back to Guilin. Part of what makes the scenes of Guililn so nice is that it's so wet. Our last day it poured but that didn't stop us from visiting out last places of interest - a cave full of stalactites. Apparently it was once used as a air-raid shelter but now its just full of pretty lights and ancient rock formations. All in all the trip was pretty relaxing and a nice break in scenery from PX. I put new pictures up at:

http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/tarshor/ChinaGuilinAndYangshuo

The next adventure is of course this silly marathon and Beijing next weekend. Fingers crossed...

Monday, April 28, 2008

CD250: Counting Down

 Is there anything better than to be longing for something, when you know it is within reach? - Greta Garbo

Today marks day 250 in China and 69 days until I return to the great US of A. I also have 19 days until my marathon on The Great Wall in Beijing. There is only 1 more working day this week and 2 days until I head to the hot tourist destination of Guilin with Andreana for our "Labor Day" 4-day holiday.

I think first things first and I must make a solid disclaimer about my last blog. I mentioned a boy - Lio. I used the term - boyfriend. Most of you, my dear friends, are thinking like the true Americans I know you are. I can hear you. The wheels are turning something like this: "Rachael mentioned a boy in her blog. She never does that. She called him her bf (boyfriend). This must be a REALLY big deal...I wonder what one wears to a Chinese/American wedding..." You must remember, I have been living in China for the better part of a year and have taken to some Chinese ways of thinking. This is how the Chinese wheels turn: "Rachael referred to a boy in her blog as her boyfriend. She is living in China and he is Chinese. Ah...he's a "Chinese boyfriend". That is just like the boy/girlfriend I had in junior high school. He/she was great! His/her best friend passed my best friend a note from him/her asking me if I'd be his boy/girlfriend. We often talked on the phone on the weekend. It was totally serious - we "dated" for at least a week!" In layman's terms, while Lio is great people, he is Chinese people and our relationship isn't serious. In China, you are "dating" someone if they are of the opposite sex and you hang out with them or talk with them at any time outside of when you have to (such as class). Please forgive me for using this term so casually and not considering the heinous repercussions I'd have to face by doing so. Now, hopefully that issue is cleared up and I can move on.

While life in general is going just fine, I am ready to come home. Outside of school I am keeping busy with planning for my return to the West Coast, planning some last minute travels I want to do before I leave Asia, and training for my marathon. While I feel like my dedication to my training schedule is spotty, I ran 20 miles the weekend before last and made it all the way home. I was absolutely filthy as the route I chose took me to possibly the dirtiest little coal mine city I have seen and quite disgusting in general, but I did it. The feeling of finishing even that far was quite liberating. Too bad there was no fanfare or adoring race supporters at the end - just Andreana asking if I was finished running yet and ready for dinner.  I wasn't sore the next day so that was a good sign as well. I have just about 3 weeks before I head to Beijing for my race  - which is over 6 miles longer - but I am feeling pretty good about it. I just have to get the motivation up for 3 weeks.

I applied to San Diego (of course) and LA (God only knows why). They both got back to me about interviewing but I can't do so until I come back stateside. Right now the plan is to put all my eggs in the San Diego basket as I would really rather live there than LA. Hopefully I can get a job for this fall otherwise the plan is to substitute. The alternative is to work at Vons (the Safeway of Cali) and try to get whatever I can. At any rate, the plan is to be settled into SD in August. I am moving there with my best friend Craig. Yes, he's a boy. No, we are not getting married. No we are not dating nor plan to date at any time in the future. We are both looking forward to the sand, sun, and surf.

Andreana and I are taking advantage of our short work week and going to a city called Guilin on Thursday. It is considered one of the top attractions in all of China for its natural scenery. I will tell you more about that once I return. I usually have to work at the high school on the weekend but she and I are hoping that when I get time off we'll be able to do a little more exploring of the province we live in. We are the china making capital of the world after all!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

CD 230: The Art of the 3 Day Weekend

I am, of course, lucky for many reasons. One such reason is that, as a teacher, I get frequent holidays. This fact is boosted by my current location in China, where they get holidays that are quite simply unheard of. This term I have also been blessed with only 1 class first thing Friday morning and students that are more than willing to have class on another day if need be. My second bit of luck is mixed. While it is unlucky that my boyfriend lives Provinces away, I am lucky in that he likes me enough to travel to see me on the weekend despite his having to travel all week for work. I am also lucky that this man who'd prefer to spend his time in a new city trying local food and beer while watching local people, likes me enough to traipse all over town to see cool stuff - meaning stuff that's cool to me.

All of this luck has been combined into 2 3-day trips I have been able to take in the last couple of months. Some here don't understand why I would only travel somewhere for such a short period of time, but if I have to chose between 3 days somewhere or never seeing it, I chose 3 days.

February had an extra day this year, so why not make it a holiday? Okay, I will. I traveled to WuHan in the Hubei Province - about 6 hours north by train. WuHan is really the conglomeration of three cities that use to be independent. But why be independent when you can conglomerate? WuHan boasts that it's the only city to lie on both sides of the Yangzi. Hooray!! BOTH sides! Take that other lame single-sided cities!!

The area along the river bank isn't too glamorous during the day as they are busy building faux beach areas, riverside apartments and its an active shipping hub. However, at night its amazing. They have a long stretch along the riverbank that is set aside just for flying kites, parks, sitting, dancing under trees, eating noodles...all the fun things to do in China. Kites is a new one...these people LOVE kite flying. Perhaps I will have to give it a go.

We kept the sightseeing to a minimum and just tried to enjoy ourselves, but I did sneak in a few things. We went to Yellow Crane Tower, which claims to be a "Fourty toping  tourist attractions of China" and "the first tower on Earth".. The tower itself was pretty spectacular and gave some great views of the city (despite the smog). Inside the tower there were also some amazing murals both painted and in tiles

The city also takes pride in having the WuHan YangZi River Big Bridge. Its 110m long and 80m high and was "one of Communists China's first great engineering feats". The city was full of Russian, French, British, and German style buildings from the concession era which is kinda fun when they have all been turned into typical Chinese restaurants, houses, and shops.

Trip 2 was slightly more exciting. I managed to talk the BF - Lio, into coming with me to Xi'an. (Keep in mind, he could care less about history....) Xi'an is known in China because it is quite near the very first capital city (which no longer exists) of the Qin Dynasty which was the first to rule over all of Eastern China. Xi'an was itself the ancient capital of both the Ming and Tang dynasties. Most people know Xi'an because that Qin emperor happened to make a GIANT Army of Terracotta Warriors.

Xi'an is one of the few cities in China where city walls are still visible and Xi'an's walls are mostly still intact or have been/are in the process of being repaired. The walls form a rectangle around the center part of the city and the gateways in each direction still stand as well as the watchtowers in each corner and numerous defensive towers. They are still working to reconstruct all parts of the wall so one day soon someone could go all the way around the downtown area from the top of the wall. Sweet.

There is a large Bell Tower just north of the South gate that use to be part of the wall (an emperor moved it) and a Drum Tower just down the street from that.  Both towers look pretty cool stuck in the middle of a busy city and add to the ancient city feel. The Drum Tower marks where a huge Muslim quarter begins. This area was jammed with craftspeople, delicious food, traditional artists, and traders of all sorts.

We visited a fun little pagoda called Little Goose Pagoda that lost its top in an earthquake. It is located with the grounds of the Jianfu Temple and now both have been incorporated into a larger park with a city museum as well. The museum is brand  new and had some cool information about the history of the city - and a lot of it was in English, which is always a bonus.

The big ticket event was of course the Army of Terracotta Warriors. About 40 years ago, a nice little peasant man was digging and well and found an underground vault of earth and timber that eventually yielded thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers and their horses in battle formation. The soldiers were placed there with the intention of guarding the nearby tomb of Qin Shi Huang (the First Emperor of Eastern China). His tomb and the warriors area is considered to be one of the greatest mausoleums the world would have ever seen. Now his tomb is more just a mound of dirt but it was reported to be filled with riches unimaginable - and the bodies of the people who designed it as he didn't want anyone knowing it's secrets. Qin didn't make many friends so his tomb and warriors were destroyed in part or in totality by his successors.

Two bronze chariots and horses were found close to the tomb and are now on display in the Warrior's complex. They have been repaired as well as they could be and the craftsmanship in wielding and design are evidence of how advanced the society was then. There are 3 pits of warriors you can visit. We started with Pit 2 which had about 1000 warriors but most of what you can see now are just fragments and the remains of the wooden beams from the vaults. Pit 3 had only 68 warriors and a war chariot. That pit was excavated, repaired, and repositioned so you can get a feel of how it would have looked.

Pit 1 is the honeypot for sure - 210 m by 60 m and some 6000 figures of warriors and horses in a huge rectangular battle array. This pit hasn't even been completely excavated! Every figure has a different expression and different facial features. All of the figures use to be painted as well. The bodies of the soldiers strictly follow ancient art of war techniques and many held original weapons of the day. As of now, over 10,000 weapon pieces have been collected and stored, but they can't be seen. Techniques the craftsmen used when making the weapons made them resistant to rush and corrosion so that even after being buried for over 2000 years, they were still sharp. I would say maybe half of the pit has been excavated. There is a section in the rear where workers have been collecting broken pieces and pain-stakingly putting figures back together.

I am not sure if I will be able to get away with any more 3 day-ers before I leave. I am taking some time off in May to go to Beijing to run my marathon and we have a 5 day weekend the first part of May for another holiday. There is less than 90 days between now and my return so my days are limited...I suppose. My friend Heather is coming to meet me in China after I am done with work. I am hoping to squeeze in a short cruise down the Yangtze to see the infamous 3 Gorges Dam before she gets here. Then, we'll tour around the Shanghai area for about 6 days before heading to Japan for a week. I know, I know...rough life.

I put some new pictures up at http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/tarshor/China3DayWeekends



Wednesday, March 26, 2008

CD182: Winter Holiday - Tibet

Since its been over a month since I have RETURNED from my winter vacation I figured it was probably about time I sat down and wrote about the last leg of my journey.

PLEASE NOTE: Due to the sensitive nature of current events in China, please DO NOT respond to this posting with any political comments or questions. Please keep in mind where I live and who I work for. Attempting to ask me anything will only serve to potentially get me in trouble here. Thank you and now for the interesting parts...my travels.

After spending Chinese New Year in Shanghai and a quick weekend trip to Suzhou, Andreana and I met back up in Shanghi for our great adventure: Tibet! We didn't realize until we got to the airport that we'd have a layover in Xian so our total flight time would be about 5 hours. We were preparing for landing in Lhasa when the flight attendants came and re-closed the curtains between coach and first class - we knew this wasn't a good sign. Minutes later after the questioning murmurs got fairly loud, they finally came on the loud speakers and announced that the Lhasa airport was closed and we would be going back to Xian. How we managed to get less than 20 minutes from the airport before they knew the airport was closed is beyond me, but at least they were prepared and we had enough fuel to get back. After a lot of confusion back at the airport, the airlines told us we could not have our checked luggage and they would be putting us up in a hotel with dinner and breakfast provided and a rescheduled flight for early the next morning. After over 14 hours of traveling, we'd ended up about 2 hours from where we'd started early that morning.

At the hotel we met 2 Australian girls and an American couple. The Aussies had been delayed once already to Lhasa, and the Americans were almost  a week behind schedule waiting for flights into the city. We hoped that we would be the trick to ending their bad luck streaks, and thankfully we were! We were able to call our tour company and make arrangements so they were there to great us at the airport. We were given white prayer flags at the airport by our tour guide, but there is more ceremony when you get lei'd in Maui. The trip from the airport to Lhasa use to take almost 2 hours but they have recently built new roads, bridges, and even tunneled through a mountain to make it about 45 minutes. Thankfully Andreana's mom had thought to send her a prescription for anti-altitude sickness pills or perhaps thankfully we have strong constitutions - either way, neither one of us were feeling the effects of the altitude sickness so we were able to catch some of the sights we had missed due to the flight delay instead of using the day to adjust.

Note: Most of the history behind the places we traveled in Lhasa and surrounding areas were from what we read in my Lonely Planet book. Our 2nd tour guide was up front and told us at the start that there would be things he could not answer us about. The history of the area is quite interesting although quite sensitive. The biggest points of interest are the Lamas, the Uprising of 1959 and the Cultural Revolution. The current Dalai Lama has not lived in Tibet since 1959 and currently lives in India. The current Panchen Lama lives in Beijing, and if I remember correctly has not returned to Tibet since he left as a child. Many temples, monasteries, etc were damaged or destroyed during the Uprising and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Restorations have been done in many locations, but the scars and stories still remain. The population of Lhasa is more than 50% Han Chinese which is due mostly to the Chinese government offering Han Chinese people great incentives to move to Lhasa. The new train that connects Tibet to the rest of China has further facilitated this rapid immigration.

The first place we went was the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lamas, Norbulingka. The various temples and buildings that were open were beautiful, but the grounds themselves weren't too much to talk about. In all fairness, we visited in February and the gardens aren't really going that early. Much of the Palace and surrounding area is still in need of repair.

Our hotel was in an area called Barkor, just up the street from Barkor Square and Jokhang Temple. We were afraid these things would be kicked off our itinerary so we walked there ourselves and joined a huge group of pilgrims as they circumambulated the temple. (In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, things are done in a clockwise pattern and never clockwise. This includes walking around and inside temples and the spinning of prayer wheels.) I had my first taste of yak and must say it's quite tasty. I then attempted to eat it at every meal thereafter.

The incredible masses of pilgrims were awe inspiring. For many of them, they will only travel to Lhasa once in their lifetime. The truly devote prostrate themselves all the way from where they live into the city taking months to do so. Prostration is complex: while standing, your hands are put in a prayer position then touched to your head, throat, and heart, and then you kneel keeping your hands in prayer position followed by lying full on the ground with your arms stretched straight in front of you. If you are prostrating to or around a sacred place, you would then step forward the length of your body and repeat the process until you reach your destination. If you are prostrating in front of a sacred place such as a temple, you would most likely do it 108 times. Our arrival to Tibet came during the beginning of the Tibetan New Year so the number of pilgrims was high - there are many particularly auspicious days around the New Year when Tibetan Buddhists feel it's a more powerful time to do their pilgrimages.

For our 2nd day in Lhasa we went to the breath-taking Potala Palace. The Potala consists of the White and Red Palace and numerous additional buildings making it the massive formation on the top of Marpo Ri (Red Hil). If you do nothing else, please look at my pictures of it to try to get an idea of what I mean. Most of the building leading up to the palaces are Chinese government offices and their presence is strongly felt. It was previously the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and within its walls were the Tibetan government offices, chapels, schools for religious training,  and tombs for the Dalai Lamas...it was in a sense a self-contained city. The Potala is the final resting place of 3 previous Dalai Lamas. Around the Potala is another popular pilgrimage kora (circuit) and almost the whole path is marked with prayer wheels.

Important religious articles are prayer flags, prayer scarves, yak butter, tsampa, prayer wheels and prayer beads. The prayer flags are probably the best known to foreigners - they are red, white, yellow, blue and green with each color representing a different element. Prayer scarves are usually white and are often brought by pilgrims to leave as offerings. Yak butter is what is used for the candles within the temples and chapels and can be given as either the butter or as oil. Yak butter along with tsampa (barely flour), fruit, chang (barely beer), water, sweets, seeds, tea and money are often left at altars. Different buddhas get different gifts - it all seems quite complex. Prayer beads can be anything as long as there are 108 of them. Prayer wheels usually have the prayers of the Compassion Buddha in them. The Compassion Buddha mantra (
Om Mani Padme Hum) is the most common. It is written on flags, scarves, small papers that are thrown into the wind, and carved into stones.


After the Potala we went to the outdoor Kumbun Pagoda of the 1000 Buddhas. They have all been painted on to a giant rock face. Next to the paintings is a large group of people who carve the Compassion mantra into small flat stones. Those stones have then been placed into a large pyramid shape at the top of a nearby hill. There was also a room of 1000 yak butter candles - 1 for each Buddha.

At the Sera Monastery later that day, we were privileged to arrive at the assembly hall when the monks were busy ready scriptures and chanting. Most of the monasteries in Tibet no longer have as many monks as they use to as their number are being controlled and being a monk is not as "popular" as it use to be. Here our tour guide was able to talk us into visiting the kitchen where we got to see some monks working hard at making yak butter rice and yak butter tea for their fellows. We were finally able to try yak butter tea after failing many times before. I wouldn't say it was delicious, but I wasn't expecting it to be. It is tea made of butter after all. It was an experience however and now I can cross "Drinking Yak butter tea at a monastery in Tibet" off of my list of things to do.

We ended up with enough time to fit in another visit to Barkor Square and The Jokhang - this time going into the temple. After the Potala, I didn't feel the Jokhang was nearly as impressive although it's considered a holier place for Tibetans. The lines were incredibly long and the military presence was stifling. Most of the chapels were blocked with heavy chain-link curtains we had to peer through.

The next day we headed out of Lhasa along what we term the Southern Friendship Highway - the longer way to Mt. Everest. At the 4794km peak of Kamba-la we were able to ride some yaks and get an amazing view of Yamdrok-tso, one of the 4 holy lakes in Tibet. Apparently foreign tourists have been known to swim in it, the Chinese use the water as any other (for washing clothes, fishing, etc), and the Tibetans circumambulate it (a 7 day walk) and revere the wrathful deities that live there. It was an amazing shade of deep turquoise and quite stunning set off by the surrounding brown hills.

We stopped briefly in Gyantse to visit Pelkor Monastery and its impressive Kumbun (or stupa) that is over 35 meters tall. The Pelkor is interesting because it is the only complex that brought together all 3 different orders of Tibetan Buddhism in one place. We continued on to Shigaste were we spent the night and were free to explore ourselves. Andreana and I found some fun outdoor markets and the hugest prayer wheel I have seen to date.

Before leaving Shigaste the following day, we visited Tashilhunpo Monastery. This monastery is the seat of the other lama lineage, the Panchen Lamas. This is the burial site of the Panchen Lamas and home of the largest gilded statue - a 26 meter figure of the Future Buddha. The day ended near the town of Shegar. We were slightly confused as we thought we were spending the night at the Everest Base Camp and couldn't figure out why we couldn't see Everest. Due to some...politically charged activities of a recent foreign tourist, its now almost impossible to stay at the actual base camp. The military presence on the highway is very evident and we had to stop frequently to show our documents and go through check points. Where we stayed was literally in the middle of nowhere about 3 hours from Everest. We had no water, no power, and nothing to do. Thankfully it was just for 1 night...and the night sky was amazing!

Early the next morning we rose before the sun did and headed to the base camp and Mt. Everest. There was 1 final check point where we had to again show permits and register our passports before we could pass. Then, at the road that leads to the base camp, we had a military inspection then a military escort to the actual camp. Before we got out of the car, the officer made it very clear to us about what we could and could not do. We had to take anything we wanted to use out of our pockets and show it to him then. We could not walk past certain points or we'd be fined...and who knows what else. What most don't realize is Mt. Everest Base Camp is actually a working military base. So, this tourist I mentioned earlier who decided that he had a statement to make, really just served in making it a lot more difficult for the rest of us. We managed to get out of the car, followed by our escort and walked up a small hill to get a good view of the mountain. Absolutely amazing. It's the strangest thing to see something in real life that you never thought you would.

After taking about a million pictures of the mountain and in front of the mountain, we went back down the street to "The Highest Monastery in the World". Tibet just doesn't get enough of this....they have "beer from the top of the world", "restaurant at the top of the world" and even a marker for "the highest toilet in the world". The monastery was rather drab and in need of serious repair, but they get to see Mt. Everest every day so life can't be too hard. We then took our escort back to his check point and took the long drive back to Shigaste. With nothing else to see in the area, we just stayed for the night and headed back to Lhasa the next day. Safely back in Lhasa we took one last stroll through the Barkor, stocked up on necessities, and packed for our trip home.

We decided to take the newly completed train from Lhasa back home - the full length of the route which takes about 3 days. We had lucked out that the whole time we were in Lhasa the weather was nicer than in while we were traveling around the rest of China. As we were leaving Lhasa on the train, it started to snow! What luck. They hadn't had much snow in the previous weeks so it hadn't been too bad of a winter for them. The train was supposed to be the ideal way to travel as the Tibetan plateau is quite beautiful. There was a lot of yak, and a lot of hills (brown hills, white hills, brown hills again)...I wasn't too awe inspired. Although...it is the highest train in the world.

Pictures: http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/tarshor/WinterHolidayTibet

Monday, February 25, 2008

CD173: Winter Holiday (China Proper)

After leaving Pingxiang (thank GOD), Ben and I headed to Hangzhou - the place that Marco Polo described as paradise on Earth. I say thank goodness because 1) we missed most of that snow that ya'll saw on TV as China's worst winter in 50 years and 2) because, despite snow, freezing temperatures, power outages, and no water, Hangzhou was indeed beautiful. The main attraction is West Lake - about 3km wide and long, surrounded by temples, pagodas, parks, and other assorted items of beauty. We ended up being there for just over a week due to train delays but I am almost positive I will make a return visit in the spring to see all of the same sights covered in green instead of white.

Highlights of Hangzhou, other than West Lake itself would have to be LingYin Temple which is surrounded but a huge park area including some caves with carvings some 800 years old. The city itself is rather inundated with Western culture; namely Starbucks, KFC, and McDonalds. It was nice however, that near the lake, and even 5 minutes off a main street and you could forget that you were in a city of over 7 million people.

After Hangzhou, Ben and I traveled to Nanjing to meet up with a friend. While there was a lot to see and do in Nanjing, we really didn't get the opportunity due to time and weather restrictions. The city is unique in that two-thirds of its ancient city walls still remain. The city was a capital twice - once for the Ming dynasty and once for the Republic of China. There were a ton of other things to see that were missed so perhaps it will also have to be revisited.

From, the 3 of us traveled to Shanghi to meet up with Andreana (fresh from Thailand). I was hoping for some amazing celebrations for the Chinese New Year, but that didn't really happen. We arrived in the city on New Year's Eve and searched for hours to find a restaurant that was open and would take us without a reservation. Chinese New Year is part of the larger Spring Festival and most Chinese get anywhere from 1-3 weeks off work. Many of the stores and restaurants are therefore closed as there is no one to staff them. The huge shows seen on TV of New Year's celebrations with dragon dances, singers, and fireworks are apparently only on TV. Many people set off fireworks, but since Chinese are free to buy and set off fireworks whenever they want, it was rather anti-climatic. At least I spend my New Year holiday in good company.

We briefly left Andreana in Shanghi for a weekend trip to Suzhou - the city that is 2nd only to Hangzhou. Granted the lovely parks it is known for were winterized, I feel safe in saying its a dirty little town with not much to offer. There we did finally decide to go up into a pagoda at a temple, but the views weren't really worth it.

After all that whirlwind travel, I spent 1 more night in Shanghi before leaving early the next morning for Tibet with Andreana.

New pictures are up of all the places traveled in China Proper...

Winter Holiday - China Proper




Wednesday, January 23, 2008

CD152: A Short Rest

After a glorious 11 days on vacation and 17 days of no work, I came back to Pingxiang. It was a freezing cold, desolate, black-out of a homecoming. Apparently campus closed early in the week and they meant it literally. All the restaurants on the back alley are closed, campus buildings are locked, and no one is around. Our old gate keeper was thankfully around to let me in to our apartment building. There was no electricity anywhere on campus, but I was hopeful that wouldn't be the same in our apartments. Grandfather came back up with a candle as there was, unfortunately no power. I am not sure if I have Grandfather or the powers that be for the power coming on about 15 minutes later, but thanks are needed. The good news is that we are only spending one night back here.

Our first overnight train took us to Guangzhou (again, only seats and no beds). We spent the day there looking around before heading out again. The temperature was mild so that was a plus. We left our baggage at the train station and hiked around to a big public park (Yuexiu) known for its huge statue of 5 goats which are believed to be the travel companions of the 5 celestial beings who came to Guangzhou to provide the people with a sign that they would never suffer from famine. After that we headed to a temple with a stellar decorated pagoda, were denied at a mosque and couldn't find another 2 temples apart from all of the construction. Southwest of the city is a small island, Shamian Island, covered in trees and foreign consulate offices were we had the pleasure of Starbucks and a sighting of the American embassy.

The next overnight train (in a bed) took us to Hainan Island, the southern most province of China. The train actually divides in half and travels for an hour on a ferry to get onto the island. Tim's parents have a time share at a hotel there we got to take advantage of for a week. The weather was only nice for the first 2 days but thankfully we took full advantage of it. The place was right on the beach and had 2 natural hot spring pools - sweetness! Other than wandering around a little, none of us did much and that was great. The most exciting adventure was probably the 4 of us and our luggage piling onto a motorcycle with a side car for the trip from the train station to the hotel. The hotel across the street had 6 bowling lanes which provided most of our nightly entertainment.

After our week and with the weather getting worse, we took the overnight back into Guanzhou and went straight back to Shamian Island in hopes of some good Western style food and a happy hour. Neither happened, but the weather was decent and the island was pleasant. Here we parted ways and Tim headed back to Pingxiang while Andreana, Ben, and I headed to the southeast China coast and a place called Xiamen. The city itself didn't have much more than a lively night market street and park/temple we didn't venture to. Our hostel and the more interesting activities were a 5 minute ferry ride from Xiamen to Gulang Yu.

On the island we visited some beautiful parks, saw a giant statue, peeked into a temple, took an air car to an open air aviary, visited a piano and an organ museum, and tried to lose ourselves in the meandering crowded streets of colonial buildings. Andreana left after 1 night to catch her flight to Thailand but Ben and I stayed an extra night and day just to take in as much as we could. I would say it was hands down my favorite place in China so far.

Now, after the 23 hour train ride back to PX and the not-so-welcome home, I am glad that it will only be 1 night. Tomorrow night Ben and I are headed to Hangzhou, about 2 hours from Shanghi. It is supposed to be amazingly beautiful so hopefully it will great despite the cold weather!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

CD139: Winter Holiday

The holidays here in China - namely Christmas and New Years, were craptastic this year. There are varied reasons that I won't get into because there is no reason to. Ben's parents were in town for Christmas however and treated us all to a Western-style Christmas dinner at their hotel. I might make my new tradition steak instead of turkey for Christmas. It has been just about a month since I got back from Cairo. The days that followed my return to Pingxiang were dark and ugly, partly to my doing. I am hoping that 2008 will be off to a better start.

After 2 3-day work weeks in a row, we had finals last week and are now off on holiday until the end of February. The good news is that we get paid for all this glorious holiday time. The Americans are off to holiday together for some of the trip, Clyde is still making up his mind, and Chioko is just traveling around Jiangxi Province on her own. I have to be thankful that there are other Americans here I can talk to. I can't imagine how miserable she is here alone, away from her husband, and unable to communicate with people.

Tim's parents have a time-share on Hainan Island in the very southern tip of China so that is where we are heading...in about an hour. Its in a resort and the boys and girls get their own rooms for about 10 yuan a night (less than $2) so it should be doable. We do have to take 2 over-night trains to get there for a total travel time of over 19 hours, but I am sure it will be worth it. Too bad we don't have beds for tonight's journey and are again stuck in seats. After Hainan we are heading north and bit and to the coast to Xiamen where Andreana will be flying off to Thailand. Less than a week later Tim will be leaving for Singapore and a lengthy cruise around Chinese and island ports. Ben and I will be on our own for about 3 weeks traveling (most likely) to Shanghai and the surrounding area. The only thing that is planned for sure is Andreana meeting me in Shanghai by the 12th of February so we can fly to Tibet for a 11 day tour. Good times.

I am hoping the travel will clear my mind and lighten my spirit a bit. I am tired of my little grey rain cloud that's been following me around.

There will be much to tell when I get back but for now, there are new pictures up under December, January, Egypt, and Doha on my picasa. I hope that all of you had a good holiday and your 2008's are starting off spectacularly.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

CD 100ish:Not in China

You know me...I was thinking of something fun to do for day 100 in China, but I just lost track of time. Too bad for me it slipped my mind as I was actually in Cairo on China Day 100.

On the 22nd of November all of the foreign teachers headed out of Pingxiang to Hong Kong. Sadly, our 8 hour over-night train ride to Guangzhou was spent on seats and not in beds as we had hoped. In then took us an additional 6 hours to get into Hong Kong and to our hostel. The hostel was a nightmare with both of the reservations we had made being wrong and the hostel not willing to do anything really about it.

All the drama aside, we spent 3 nights in HK doing what there was to do. The weather was slightly miserable but we enjoyed being in a big city where we could blend into the crowd and not have people stare at us as we walked down the street. Victoria Peak was really the only touristy thing we did (other than shop) because of the weather and because everyone else had already been to HK before. I did get to eat some sushi, guacamole, and some German beer however. On the last night in town we meet a cool guy who lives in HK which worked out to my advantage. Everyone else had to leave Sunday morning to head back  home, and I would have been left alone in the city with my suitcases and a day to kill as my flight didn't leave until midnight on Sunday. Herman turned out to be a great host and was kind enough to spend the day with me so I wouldn't have to wander alone. He even took me to the airport!

I flew 8 hours from Hong Kong to Doha, Qatar and was put in a hotel free of charge for my 6 hour layover. There were some other people on my flight that ended up going to the same hotel. I randomly ended up rooming with a girl from Pingxiang who left there 10 years ago and now lives in Guangzhou. Such a small world! She really didn't believe that I lived here (Pingxiang) - yes, the joke is on me. Leaving the airport got me a stamp in my passport so that was cool, but I am not really sure its other purpose.  It was morning and we had some time to kill and the Chinese people were all excited to see some news tower in Doha so we spent some time trying to find it. We soon gave up and everyone else went back to the hotel. I wandered around by myself for almost 2 hours just to see what I could see - not much where I was at.No worries as were were soon  back on the plane for the 3 hour flight to Cairo.

Here is where the story changes a bit. I was in Egypt for 2 weeks. We all know I can be quite verbose so I won't bore you with details of all of the things that we did and saw.

The brief recap is the part that was supposed to be educational, the conference, was a huge let down. We didn't spend much time learning about Egyptian education in any aspect. We went to a lot of boring and worthless meetings as well.

The sightseeing and the cruise on the Nile however were amazing. I wish I could have spent the wasted week seeing more of what I missed while in boring meetings. Here is some of what I can tell you.

20 million people live in Cairo and Giza which are really just considered Cairo unless you live in Giza and really care. I think all 20 million people own cars and drive them at the same time. It was like Pingxiang before there were lanes, crosswalks, signals, and police to enforce the rules BUT they have all of those things and people just drive as they see fit. Police and armed security are everywhere. There were guys with hugemongous guns to greet me getting off the plane and I think I almost fainted. Tourists get special treatment - read: we couldn't go anywhere without some security of some sort and when in large groups we had to take a bus even if we were only going 2 blocks.

The merchants are too aggressive and annoying in most touristy places and it ruins some of the awe and wonder of seeing these amazing things. The people are friendly and the people in our tour serving as guides and helpers spoke great English. Some also spoke 4 other languages, but let's not embarrass ourselves.

In Cairo we saw the Great Pyramids (of course) in a totally UNnatural me event, I missed the bus to go with the group but ended up with a handsome Egyptian tour guide of my own, so that was okay. We didn't do the same viewing the others did as I had already paid the huge ticket fee and didn't want to pay it again...for 2 people. I saw the Sphinx too as it's right in front of the pyramids. We visited the Egyptian Museum which looks like a giant store room for Egyptian treasures. The Royal Mummies exhibit was open so that was the highlight.

The day before the cruise we headed 3 hours north to Alexandria. There we visited the Alexandria National Museum, the Catacombs of Kom El Shugafa, the Roman Ampitheathre, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Qait Bay Fortress, and the Mediterranean. While some parts were cleaner and less crowded than Cairo, the beach was filthy and the rush hour traffic was unbearable.

For the cruise, we took a short flight to Aswan and started from there the next day. During the day we toured around Aswan, visiting the Aswan High Damn, Philae Temple (which had to be moved to a different island after the Island of Philae was submerged due to the damn), and the Unfinished Obelisk in the granite quarries they used for building the pyramids. Last we took a Felucca ride down the Nile back to our boat. We then cruised to Kom Ombo and visited the temple of the god Sobek. Then more cruising to Edfu while we donned traditional Egyptian costumes and danced with the staff.

Day 3 we saw the Edfu Temple (largest and most completely preserved) before cruising to Esna. The Esna Temple which was dug out from about 9m of muck and is also very well preserved. Then we continued cruising to Luxor.

The 4th day started with a trip to the Valley of the Kings. You can only see 3 tombs for each entry so I saw Ramses I, IV, and IX. For an extra fee some of us went to see King Tut's tomb which was AMESOME as they now have his ACTUAL mummy out for viewing. Some people didn't think it was worth the $20...maybe they'll see Tut next time they're in Egypt. In the Valley of the Queens we saw a tomb that was for...I want to say Ramses children...some 50 of them. We then stopped by the Hatshepsut Temple and paid a little homage to Egypt's only female pharaoh. The colors preserved there were pretty amazing. A quick photo stop at the Colossi of Memnon and we were rushed back onto the boat for our lunch before heading back out to the east bank of Luxor. The Temple of Luxor was absolutely huge and amazing and the Karnak Temple had an amazing Hypostyle Hall of 134 pillars. I will apologize now for my lack of adjectives to describe these temples in more detail, but there really aren't one's good enough. Look at my pictures, then go there yourself.

The next day we all flew back to Cairo where I spent I more day with a new Egyptian friend before heading back to China and reality.