Tips from a fellow traveler

Hello all you world travelers! Today we have a guest collaborator, KC Owens, who is a fellow traveler and writer. In his article, KC writes about potential hazards of traveling abroad and how to avoid being a victim. Check it out:

Safe Travel Tips

Traveling around the world is something that everyone should experience for new culture, adventure, and sights. Traveling can be one of the most rewarding things you ever do, but sometimes the unexpected happens and your plans don’t quite work out as you had hoped they would. When this happens, things can go downhill, fast. Before you plan any big trip, learn about some of the troubles you could run into while traveling and have a contingency plan in case they do.

Pickpockets make a business of preying on unsuspecting tourists and can walk away with your wallet without you even suspecting that something happened. While getting a wallet stolen is never convenient, having a prepaid credit card instead of a normal credit card or cash can save you a lot of hassle. According to Credit Card Insider prepaid cards are secured so if you discover that it has been stolen, then you can cancel it at any time. They are also handy because they don’t carry personal information on them. You can keep a small amount of money on it instead of an entire bank account so if it does get used without your authorization you only lose a small amount of money. While you are traveling, you can use a secure Internet connection to transfer money onto the card as you are using it. If it is stolen, you can cancel it and it becomes useless to the thief, just like a regular credit card. Prepaid credit cards are easy to apply for and use and are popular among the traveling student demographic. 

The other valuable item that pickpockets would love to get is your passport, especially if it’s an American one. If you discover that your passport has been stolen, contact the nearest embassy of your native country. If you are an American, you can find a list of embassies at http://www.usembassy.gov. Always keep a copy of your passport somewhere different than your actual passport so you have proof of your identification. Keep the copy in a plastic bag to make sure it stays dry throughout your adventures. Of course, the easiest way to travel is to try to keep your passport from getting stolen. Keep an eye on your belongings by keeping your purse locked and your pockets empty whenever possible. If you are keeping items in your pockets, keep your hands in your pockets in busy places and check for your critical belongings often.

Sometimes, thieves become more aggressive and will mug foreign travelers. While there is no way to completely avoid getting attacked, there are several behaviors to avoid while traveling. Whenever possible travel with other people, especially at night, when you are walking around in public, avoid flashing money or expensive pieces of technology around that would make you a target for a thief. Lastly, regardless of how much fun a nightclub is, be sure you have your wits about you when you head back to your hotel for the night.  Travel.State.Gov gives some great tips on ways to be safe when traveling broad. 

KC Owens has written and submitted this article. KC is a college student who loves traveling, college life, fitness and a good survival kit. He enjoys studying different cultures, meeting new people and leaving his footprint somewhere most people only read about.

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Lights, Camera, Act… like you know what you’re doing

It has indeed been quite some time since I wrote the previous blog entry. Alas this may very well be my last post! After I step off that plane in Logan Airport this blog will have fulfilled its duty: to give you guys-my friends and family- a window into my life in China. I was looking over some of the older posts the other day and I think this blog covered a good deal of my happenings in China. But there are also plenty of stories that didn’t make it to the blog for the sake of keeping things concise and audience appropriate. With that said I’m looking forward to seeing all of you again and recounting the stories this blog has allowed us to share as well as the many adventures I have yet to reveal.

I will now attempt to recount some of the major events of my life from the past month…

1. I graduated

Yeah! Feels great! Umass Dartmouth held the commencement ceremony on May 22nd and announced my name among the list of official graduates from the University. Magna Cum Laude baby. Unfortunately, I still had about three weeks of classes left in China so I didn’t get to join the celebration at home. Aaaaaaand I still had to take tests and write papers after I had graduated. Kind of silly. But I finished my last homework assignment ever yesterday. So I guess now I’m a real person or something? That’s what that piece of paper means right?  Well, either way I’m done with school and it feels great to think that when I return home I can begin living out the rest of my life.

2. I was on a Chinese dating show

No, I didn’t win. And thank God for that because I was happy to get off of that stage as soon as possible. Here’s what happened: One of the program coordinators for my study abroad program in Nanjing got a message from the local television studio saying they were looking for a white-face to be on their game show. She called me up and relayed the proposition… “Wellllll I dunno. I’m not too confident my current level of Chinese is good enough for a dating show.”
“Hey, it’s no big deal,” she tells me. “They give you a script and you just memorize that. Come on I believe in you.”
Okay, I’ll do it. And the next day I went down to the studio to pick up the script. I get there and find the room I was told to look for which was a small little conference room filled with the girls and guys who were participating in this dating show. One of the girls asks me: “So did you come here to find true love?”
I answer: “Uhhhhh, I mean, I think I uhhh mssuhnuiks mumble mumble mumble. What about you?
“No way, we’re here to have fun and make money!”
“Yeah me too! Totally…”

The writer of the show comes in and we go over the script together. Basically, according to the script, I am a 24 year old American who is looking to find a hot Chinese wife. Essentially this “character” that I would be playing is an extremely arrogant, self centered, moronic version of myself. The only thing tying me to this buffoon was that we would share the same name and exact same physical appearance. Whoops.
“Do you think this is anything like you?” asks the writer.
“No not at all”
“Hahaha oh okay, lets talk about what you’ll be wearing.” The writer tells the fashion guy: “we want him to dress kind of like an older person would dress.”

We were scheduled to film the next day so I went home and memorize the script which turned out to be a manageable task. I recognized over 90% of the characters and my parts were limited to less than ten lines. So I was feeling pretty confident about the whole thing, a little nervous of course, but overall in control.

Well, the next day back at the studio I was hanging out with all of the other contestants in the dressing room where they did my hair, put some makeup on this mug o’ mine, and gave me this lovely pink shirt.

“The eff is this?”
So a couple of hours later the show finally starts, I’m the third contestant out of four and when my time comes I step out from behind stage for the moment of truth.

Long story short, I stuck to the script as best as I could. Unfortunately I think I was the only one on that stage who did. For one thing the two hosts spoke Chinese faster than Jackie Chan on speed. And they reworded questions such that I basically lost my cues. The 15 minutes I stood up there felt like hours as the hosts fired away question after question most of which I responded to with “uhh whaaaat?” I felt like Chris Farley on that SNL skit of the Japanese game show.

I dove in the deep end of Chinese that day only to find a bottomless ocean. I’m making this sound like a complete failure when in fact I did manage to answer a few questions and thankfully they edited out a good deal. But man, if anything it was good motivation to study Chinese harder because I never want to be stuck in a situation like that ever again. Here’s the episode online: I come on about a third of the way through.

3. Traveled to Xi’an and saw the Terra-Cotta Soldiers

The Shuyuan Hostel, right near the south gate of the Xi’an city wall, offers tours of the local and regional sights including the Terra-Cotta soldiers. A group of nine foreigners and I visited the site under the guidance of JiaJia, a cute and spunky little Chinese girl who held a smiling flower as her tour flag. During her introduction, she made a point to say that she was single :/ . She insisted that a red-haired, blue-eyed woman from Dublin with our group didn’t look or sound Irish.

Before entering the excavation sites, JiaJia explained some of the background information about the Terra-Cotta army. It was discovered in 1974 by a farmer who while digging a hole for a well happened upon a life-sized clay soldier in the ground. Amazingly, the first soldier discovered by the farmer has been the only clay statue completely in tact. Not only that, but some of the original colors still remain on the soldiers armor. Normally, upon unearthing new soldiers, their colors will fade within a half hour after being exposed to oxygen. Yet after more than 2,000 years the color is still visible!

The original kneeling archer found by the farmer

If you have ever seen the second sequel to the movie “The Mummy,” you might recall Emperor Shi Huangdi 秦始皇陵, portrayed by Jet Li, as being a mad despot obsessed with achieving immortality. Surprisingly the movie got that right. In ancient China, mercury was known for its ability to preserve living tissue. The emperor took it a step further and actually ingested large amounts of mercury in order to live for as long as possible. Whoops.
Archeologists have yet to enter the actual tomb of the emperor which today still appears to be a large mound of earth adjacent to where the soldiers have been excavated. But researchers have determined that there is actually an entire moat of mercury within the tomb. Is it there to safeguard against grave robbers, or to preserve the contents of the tomb? Perhaps the emperor’s body is still completely embalmed in a pool of mercury… As the research continues it will be exciting to discover the secrets of Shi Huangdi and his intricate tomb.
What we do know about the emperor today is that within the 36 years of his reign as King of Qin(246 BC – 221 BC) and Emperor of China (221 BC – 210 BC),  Shi Huangdi, unified all of China, constructed a large portion of the great wall of China, and oversaw the creation of the Terra-Cotta soldiers that would guard his tomb and protect him forever in the afterlife. After eating too many thermometers, he died before all of the soldiers were completed.
It is true that no two soldiers are completely alike as their faces are modeled after real people. However they were not the faces of the emperor’s soldiers. According to the tour guide, every face was modeled after one of the roughly 8,000 artisans who were enslaved and trained to sculpt the soldiers and then buried alive nearby in order to keep the emperor’s tomb a secret. The artisans couldn’t model the face after their own, so instead they sculpted it after the face of whichever slave worked across from them. Some slaves, understanding the fate that awaited them, secretly carved their names into hidden spots on the soldiers. Can you imagine working on a task of which the reward for its completion was your own death? And what did it feel like to be in that position and sculpt a clay head of a man about to die, who simultaneously sculpted your own face?

During our tour of the largest archeological pit, there was a group of what appeared to be privileged tourists who were allowed to cross the velvet rope and walk up to see the soldiers face to face.

Government officials most likely… Watch this one guy in the orange jacket. As soon as he got up to the soldiers he takes out his cell-phone and starts making phone calls!

Who ya textin’ bro? What a jackass.

To wrap up this post here are some photos of the city of Xi’an and some of the things I did and people I encountered there.

Some friends who work at the hostel. Being locals from Xi’an they eagerly took me on a tour of the city and bought me all sorts of food! I tried to pay for it myself but they insisted: “You are our guest in our city so we must treat you.” Thanks again guys!

Me and the owner of a famous dumpling restaurant located in Xi’an’s Muslim Quater.

Birdcages hanging above one of the courtyards in the hostel.

A friend and I were determined to ride the city wall on a tandem bike. We waited for 1.5 hours until we got one but it was worth it!

A construction site seen from the city wall.

Delicious texture!

In no other Chinese city have I seen so many buses and such crowded bus stops. This was on Labor Day so the number of people out and about was especially high.

One of the things I liked best about Xi’an is that the city has managed to maintain a lot of classic Chinese architecture despite the break-neck pace of development. Countless other cities in China demolish the old traditional structures in a race to modernize in a way that resembles some gross tribute to the Western world. But Xi’an has managed to develop in a way that gives visitors the impression that “yes, this, this right here is China.”

Well unless I’m forgetting anything I think that’s about all I have to share. I’m back in Shanghai right now waiting for my 4p.m. flight to Boston tomorrow. Well China, it’s been real. I know we’ve had our ups and downs and we don’t always see eye to eye on everything. Maybe we just don’t understand each other that well enough yet. Listen, China, if you’re willing to make this work then I am too. I have to go home now…I know, I’ll miss you too. I’ll be back again, okay? I promise. Well, I guess this is goodbye, China. Take care of yourself… Thanks I will. Okay, goodbye!

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Xinjiang rocks… and sand

And just like that, another month passes, and with it a new batch of adventures in the ever enchanting and often perplexing Middle Kingdom. How can it be that in less than two months my adventures will be over? Alas, time is something we cannot control, yet we can control what we do with it. I wrote a little poem a few months ago while in Shanghai. I was on my way to Pudong Intl. Airport to begin my winter travels:
Make your plans,
take a chance,
go somewhere you’ve never been before.
Take the time
to expand your mind,
get your ass up off the floor.

Although my adventures in China will soon be coming to a close, I hope to travel to new places, meet new people, and continue to expand my mind for as long as I live.

I write to you now from the ancient city of Xi’an, best known for the entombed army of Terra Cotta Soldiers. I’m enjoying a few days here in Xi’an on my week-long break from classes. In fact, we haven’t had classes since the 21st. For a week I traveled with my study abroad group in Xinjiang, China’s largest and westernmost province that sits to the north of Tibet and borders on Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west.

Xinjiang was a key region that linked China to the Middle East and Western Europe via the Silk Road. As such, Xinjiang has been -and still is- a mixing pot of peoples, religions, cultures, and goods from all over the world. We arrived in the capital of Xinjiang, Urumuqi, stayed for one quick night, and set off early in the morning for Kuche.

At the night market near our hotel.

The massive bow makes it kind of hard to tell but this is an entire lamb…

A local bazaar in Urumuqi.

Our tourguide informed us that Kuche was once a prosperous kingdom hundreds of years ago. What was once a flourishing kingdom is nothing but rock and dust today.

The actual city of Kuche didn’t seem too far off. In our free time, a few of us ventured off down a few sidestreets to get a feel for the local life.

The main street outside of the hotel. This was about all the city has to offer.

The view outside of the hotel room.

It soon became hard to believe that we were still in China. All of the signs above store fronts and the messages scrawled along walls were in both Chinese and Uyghur. Also, most of the people living in Kuche are of the Uyghur minority who look very little like the Han Chinese and speak their own language, Uyghur, which is closer to Turkish. The old men grow long beards and wear small white caps while the women dress in long skirts and wrap exotic scarves around the heads.

It felt strange communicating with the Uyghur people in Mandarin as their own native language is not Chinese. Even stranger still was that when I saw some of the few Han Chinese living in Kuche I actually felt a sense of comfort. I thought: “oh finally, someone I can relate to!”

After a couple days of visiting extrememly touristy and irrelevant sites in and around Kuche, all 20 of us borded a bus to Kashgar that took- get ready for this- nine hours. Okay some of you might not think it’s that bad. But keep in mind that the reason it took this long is because just about all of the roads in Xinjiang are either in disrepair or are being repaired. After a day of non-stop rumbling and bumbling on a bus it was a relief to finally arrive to the beautiful city of Kashgar.

Kashgar was the first kingdom/government to adopt an Islamic theocracy. This is a major reason why the above mosque, located in downtown Kashgar, is known in the Arab world as the second Mecca.

We visited a local rug factory where all of the rugs are hand-made.

We ate lunch at an Indian/Uyghur restaurant where this man and his friend filled the room with wailing vocal melodies and twangy string plucks.

Inside Kashgar’s Old City we got to enter the houses and shops of the local people. This man here is fashioning a brass hook that he afterward installed on one of his homemade bird cages.

That’s right, we’re in China too!

A little panaroma of the hotel room in Kashgar. Two words: glitter puke.

On a tour of some nearby geological sites. We all piled into the back of this truck which took us on a precarious ride through the mountain valley.

Sick rocks bro. Xinjiang was a great place to travel. It really made me realize just how massive and diverse China actually is. There is so much more to this country than just the Great Wall and Shanghai!

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Where in the world???

啊呀!It’s been well over a month since last posting in this blog. Since classes have started my life has been centered on learning Chinese and I haven’t had enough time to write a new post. However this past weekend was the Tomb Sweeping Festival and I managed to squeeze some time out of our long weekend to catch up my writing. I have a great deal to write about, so here we go.
Towards the end of February I last wrote about my trip to Emei Mountain which actually took place in January. After hiking the snowy trails of Emei I flew to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, for a week of sweet relaxation in the tropical 60 degree weather.
My plan was to travel westward from Kunming to Dali and Lijiang, two “must sees” of Yunnan province. Unfortunately, my plans coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year making train a bus tickets in China as hard to come by as breathable air. Nevertheless I enjoyed the early spring in Kunming where I got into a good groove of studying Chinese, ventured out into the city, made some new friends at the hostel, and watched the jaw-dropping display of fireworks that exploded over the city in celebration of the New Year.
It’s quite amazing how the largest celebration celebrated by the largest group of humans on the planet is barely a thought in the minds of most Americans. And what a celebration it was. From the early evening on the eve of the New Year, people all over the city began popping off explosions of color and light from the streets, hill tops, and buildings. Sparks splashed against the side of a nearby building as a resident from the adjacent building fired off round after round of fireworks from his apartment window. The cacophony continued well into the night and was still resonating through the city streets early in the morning. And the fireworks continued for the next fifteen days of the Chinese Lunar Festival. Would you expected anything less from the birthplace of gunpowder?

On the first day of the New Year I took a city bus to a local park to watch the locals gather for the festivities. The place was packed with people of all ages enjoying the beautiful weather on their day off. Singers accompanied by groups of musicians chanted out traditional Chinese tunes while wrinkly old men crowded around park benches playing cards.

I stayed in Kunming till Feb. 5th when I took a 36 hour train back to Shanghai. While boarding a long distance train in China, it’s very easy to feel a great sense of frustration towards the Chinese and what seems to be their general complete lack of respect and concern for the people around them. For as soon as the ticket taker opens up the gate hundreds of people rush forward into what is more of a pile than a line, everyone squeezing their way to get to the front as fast as possible yet moving at the pace of dripping molasses, pushing and bumping, compressing one another into an indistinguishable mass of bodies and luggage. It’s times like this when I am amazed at the complete lack of concern in China for the person standing right next to you. And then my opinions of the Chinese are turned completely upside down when the people in my train compartment take me in as one of their own and never hesitate to offer me whatever food, tea, and friendliness they have. Similarly, when walking down a crowded street in an overpopulated city, slightly lost, meandering through the crowds of people who bump and push without concern, faces forward in their unyielding focus on everything except the street and the people there. And then I ask someone for directions and it’s as if I breached a barrier between two humans and they realize, oh you’re a person, and not only do they give me directions, but will walk me to the right bus stop and decipher the map and explain it to me to ensure I get off at the right stop. I wonder if my foreign status has something to do with it. I wonder how the Chinese people would treat one another in a similar situation.

Anyways, after spending a few days in Shanghai I hopped on a train to Nanjing. They have high-speed trains that run between Shanghai and Nanjing that complete the one way trip in just over an hour. They are brand new, sleek, clean, and comfortable. I did not take one of those trains. Instead I had to take one of the older, dirtier, and much less comfortable trains that made the trip in four hours. No big deal, I’ve experienced similar transportation situations before in this country. But what really made this trip special was the woman sitting next to me who let her young child pee right there in the middle of the aisle. And what’s more is nobody says anything, nobody around me even bats an eye at what this woman is doing. I think to myself this country has a serious sanitation problem and I would love to give this woman a piece of my mind. But I keep my mouth shut to keep the words in and the pee out and look forward to the moment when I can just get off the train.

I arrived in Nanjing late at night and took a taxi to the Jasmine Hostel, a quaint old home converted into a guest house and run by an eccentric young Chinese girl named, of course, Jasmine. It was snowing that night and the old home was bitterly cold. I made a few Chinese friends at the hostel who invited me to go hiking with them on the Purple Mountain.

Me and my new friend Joseph standing in front of the Jasmine Hostel.

February 15th marked the first full moon of the new lunar year, the day known as the Lantern Festival. A few Chinese friends and planned to eat some traditional Nanjing food and visit a local temple to celebrate the festival. Before getting there my friend Joseph asks me: “What is China most well know for?” “People,” I said. “You’re about to find out why.” Never before had I seen so many people crowded together in an open public area. Thousands of people funneled through the open courtyard into the narrow veins of Nanjing’s Fuzimiao district.

Once inside the crowd the only thing you could do was move, and officers stood along the roadside making sure people didn’t stop to take pictures. The temple we hoped to get into was far to congested so we instead took a stroll along the top of Nanjing’s city wall where we watched red lanterns rise in the sky against the sparkling backdrop of fireworks bursting into color over the expanse of city.

By then I had already moved into the dorms at Nanjing University and was living with my temporary roommate who also happened to be named Max and whose Chinese name is strikingly similar to my own. By the 17th, all of the students in our program had arrived and settled into the dorms. All together there are about 24 of us, which is a nice contrast to the almost 80 people last semester in Shanghai. Plus we all seem to get along pretty well; I would say it’s a good group of people. The first weekend of the semester, we went on a trip to Xiamen which is an Island off of China’s southeast coast.

Shark fin soup anyone?

The island of Xiamen is half bustling commercial and tourist center, half military outpost (it happens to be very close to Taiwan).

We also ventured up north into the countryside of Xiamen’s nearby Fujian province.

Due to a mistake made by our travel agency, we got upgraded to one of the island’s nicest five star hotels that overlooked the beach. Thank you. That Saturday night we celebrated my birthday on the beach, drinking red wine under the stars. Perfect.

When we returned to Nanjing that Sunday, I moved out of the dorm and in with my host family. I’m living with an older couple, probably in their 50s or 60s, who have a daughter who now lives and works in France. They were the first people to work with CIEE in Nanjing as a host family. They have been doing this for ten years now so they have a pretty good sense of what Westerners are like. They don’t speak a lick of English which made communication extremely difficult at first (it doesn’t help that they have pretty heavy accents too). But my Chinese is improving everyday so the situation gets better and better. They’re super nice, respect my privacy, and feed me like a fat kid. We got a good thing going on.

Since classes started my days have been almost entirely committed to learning and studying Chinese. Last semester in Shanghai I was in the Beginner level-2 class. However this semester I tested into the Advanced Chinese class. I think the weeks of traveling and interacting with Chinese people was key to my progress. I have no doubt in my mind that I’m in the right class but I did technically skip a level of Chinese and all of the vocab and grammar structures taught in those lessons. So while learning our new lessons I am also catching up with what I would have learned in the other classes. It’s a challenge to say the least. I am working harder right now than I have ever worked in all of my 16 years of education. And never before have my academic efforts produced results like the ones I experience now. It feels great!
Oh yes, I have also been teaching American English to a Chinese kid and his mom. Here’s a picture of me and Owen:

That’s all for now. I have midterms this week and have to get to studying. I’ve got about two months left in China before going home. I hope to learn as much Chinese as I possibly can and enjoy my final days in this perplexing and adventure filled country.

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Emei Shan-anigans: Do feed the animals!

From Chengdu Station, I took a bus to Mt. Emei. As I boarded the bus a man in the second row eagerly waved me over and offered me the seat next to him. “Please, please, sit here,” he said in English.  How could I refuse?
“My name is Andy,” he tells me. “I own a hotel in the town of Mt. Emei. It’s called the Teddy Bear Hotel.”
“No kidding, that’s where I booked to stay tonight”
“Oh really? That’s great, I called you over to sit with me so I could convince you to stay at my hotel!”
Whadyaknow?
Three hours later, at about 10 at night, the bus slowed to a stop in the downtown area of Emei City. Of course, it would have been convenient had the driver taken us all the way to the bus station since the Teddy Bear Hotel is located literally right next to the station, but that kind of thing just happens here sometimes.
Andy was kind enough to cover the cab fare- which I found out was complementary service of the hotel anyways- and helped me bring my things inside. I found the hotel common area completely empty except for the people working at the front desk. An odd situation to be found in a youth hostel so early in the night. Most of the travelers, I assumed, were resting up for a long day of hiking the mountain.
The cook was asleep but Andy was eager to whip up some local food  for me himself as he is also a chef. “This local food is the best kind of food you can get in China. Definitely.”
Yes, of course.
Andy originally worked as a street vendor selling dumplings in his hometown of Emei City. He eventually opened up his own restaurant called the Teddy Bear Cafe which later became the Teddy Bear Hotel.

In the beginning, Andy ran the Teddy Bear Hotel as a youth hostel that catered mostly to western travelers seeking adventure on the mountain. He later expanded and upgraded his home into a full-fledged hotel to accommodate both international and domestic tourists. He spoke passionately about his hotel -which he referred to as his home- and about all the work he poured into it over the years. All of the wood used to build the new hotel came from trees cut down from the mountain that were dragged down and then sliced into the shapes and sizes that eventually fit together giving material form to his dream. We stood below bulking beams that hung from the roof like the shoulders of a wooden giant and Andy acted out the process of shaving off the bark and cutting the tree into form before finally applying a coat of lacquer. Every piece, every process, so much time, so much money. Like a kid excited about his favorite new toy, he showed every unoccupied room, each with its own unique variety of the hotel’s core design theme.

And in every room a teddy bear rested comfortably, waiting to greet their new guests.

Mt. Emei, located in Sichuan province, is the tallest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains in China, soaring to over 3,000 meters high. It is well known for a giant Buddha statue and heavenly views from the mountain top. When the weather is right, you are literally looking out over a sea of clouds. Along the way to the top, hikers may also discover monkeys roaming the trails like hungry little mountain children  looking for human snacks. I took a bus from the Emei station to one of the mountain park entrances and began the climb.

Old ladies stood on the stairs waiting for tourists to pass by, hoping to sell large incense rods to burn at one of the dozens of mountain temples.

Although Emei Mountain is essentially a national park, people have been living there for who knows how long and still reside in mountain villages to this day. The tourist economy must have done wonders for their standard of living because most of the houses I encountered along the main paved mountain path were newly constructed and boasted brand new cars in driveways.

And still, a good number of the mountain population does its own farming.

I came across this man who crafts his own wooden canes.


“Which country are you from?” he inquired.
“America.”
“Oh, ‘you qian ren.’” (You qian ren literally translates to “have money person”)
I think of myself as a poor college student still subsidized by my parents. But to a lot of the people here in China I may as well be Bill Gates.


As the stairs went up and up into the clouds themselves, what was a light wet mist at the bottom of the mountain became a soft snow flurry.

I stopped to take photos of this waterfall. A Chinese family was there already snapping shots of each other in front of the lovely view.

As soon as I showed up, though, the cameras not so surreptitiously turned in my direction to get footage of a foreign traveler for their family photo album. I feel like I’ve said this before but I swear me and my American friends are being displayed at family get-togethers all over China. But this time I got payback. No free modeling this time! Take that China!

It was a loosing battle as the wife held a camcorder, capturing every moment of my existence she witnessed during our brief encounter. One day, China, one day…

Yes, that’s very cute and all but, personally, I think the monkeys on mountain are greedy little brats. And its our fault! Before entering the monkey reservation, I passed by people selling “monkey food” from carts. A man stood in the path holding a bundle of bamboo rods saying “hey, monkey monkey.” What does bamboo have to do with monkeys? I though it was only pandas that eat bamboo…
I waved and said no thanks I don’t want to feed the monkeys I’m just going to pass through, see some monkeys, and be on my way.
Yeah. That’s what I thought.
I reached the reservation which was separated from the path by a rickety bridge straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that ran not-so high above a small stream. A group of frightened teenage girls stood shaking before the bridge. “Come on,” I thought. “It’s a perfectly safe bridge, what’s the big deal.” Silly foreigner…
The years of tourists flocking to the reservation and handing out free food has conditioned the monkeys to expect food from any and every human that passes through their domain. Tourists wield bamboo sticks for their own safety against these greedy little primates.
See for yourself:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJR2DwEDtW4

I tried to pass through their land without the proper offering… Did not go so well. As I approached the other side of the bridge, monkeys swung from trees and scurried down rock faces. The largest monkey of the group, a bundle of pure muscle and fur, stood at the front of the bridge like an evil troll. I walked past, trying to ignore him as he peaked into my pockets only to find my Chinese-English dictionary. A small group of reservation workers stood by throwing unintelligible Chinese in my direction. “No, no, no, I don’t want  a picture with the monkey. No thanks, I’m just going to keep going.” I didn’t realize until after, but what they were really telling me was to feed the guy soon or leave immediately. Because as soon as I took a step too far into his territory, he ran up and grabbed the front of my coat trying to pull me back. Not thinking too smartly, I persisted forward and the monkey closed his mouth around my thigh with a bite that said: “This is a warning, try it again and I will fuck you up.” Shocked, I turned and looked at one of the workers who brandished a bamboo pole. She swung it at the monkey and told me to “get out of here immediately.” Yes, please! I hurried across the bridge with a troop of monkeys in my wake like a horde of hungry zombies.
So yeah, other than that little encounter, Emei Shan was great! Here are some more pictures:

The mountain is filled with wondrous sights that would take me days to discover. To stay on schedule, I was on the mountain for only one day. Unfortunately, I did not reach the summit of the mountain (which is supposedly the best part, whoops), but my friend Matt Lurrie went to Emei back in October and did make it to the top. Here are some of Matt’s pictures, enjoy:

 

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Pandamonium

People say that if you go to Chengdu you HAVE to visit the pandas.
“What? You haven’t seen the pandas?! OH MY GODDD what are you doing with your life?! You have to see the pandaaaaass!!!!”
I didn’t quite understand this obsession with some of the laziest animals of Earth so I went to Chengdu’s panda reservation to see what all the hype was all about.
A group of us from the hostel piled into a rickety van early in the morning which took us about thirty minutes outside of the city and dropped us off in a barren parking lot. The driver pointed to a gate at the edge of the parking lot and muttered a few words saying “meet back at the van at 11:00.”
Still half asleep, we shuffled down a long pathway enclosed within rundown cement walls plastered with faded posters of pandas. The panda reservation was beginning to feel more like an old cold war missile silo.
Fortunately, the dim gray pathway opened up into the brighter and better maintained main entrance of the park. The park itself was an enclosed bamboo forest crisscrossed with pavement paths and sliced up into various panda pens.
It was early morning when we arrived and a cold and damp mist floated through the walls of bamboo followed by weary park workers holding bamboo-leaf brooms and clad in blue sanitary suits. We followed the signs to the first panda pen which held the red pandas.

These adorable little guys emerged from their dwellings one by one to curiously meet their new guests.

I WANT IT

He’s thinking: “one day, I’ma be famous.”

“Yup, this is what I’m gonna’ do all day, plop down on my ass and eat bamboo.”

While the fully grown giant-pandas were about as entertaining as watching paint dry, the younger guys ran all around the pen, wrestling with each other, climbing trees, and playing with toys.

A group of them gathered by the door anticipating their morning feeding time. This person had to jump out of the door and slam it shut before the little rascals could sneak in.

This one panda followed her all the way around the pen as she did her morning routine. He knows who his momma is.

This is so cute it makes me want to vomit cupcakes and unicorns.

Peekaboo!

“Okay, I think I want to come down now…”

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Spicy, Spicy, Spicy!

Ahh Chengdu. Once known as the Riverlands during the Three Kingdoms Period (200-280 C.E.). Ruled by the Emperor of Shu, Liu Bei, protected by the Five Tiger Generals, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Zhao Zilong, Ma Chao, and Huang Zhong, and administered by the genius Taoist inventor and military strategist, Zhuge Liang. It is said that Chengdu is a hot place; it’s got hot weather, hot food, and hot women. I agree.

The famous Lord Guan Yu of the Three Kingdoms Period. Today, people in China revere him as a god.

I embarked on a quick ride from Chongqing to Chengdu on a brand new train. It was fast, clean, comfortable, and quiet. Gazing out the window as the train passed through the countryside, I watched as workers laid bridges and blasted through mountainsides creating the foundation for what would be yet another brand new rail line. I sat facing a young couple; the two of them were going to the girl’s family home in Chengdu to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Their English was very poor for what appeared to be two kids fresh out of high school. Nevertheless we managed to communicate and get to know each other a little bit. “Are you a college student?” I inquired.
“No, I work,” he replied, and in a swift motion pulled out his wallet and smacked it face down on table in between us. A sharp metallic emblem on the face of the wallet said it all: this kid was a cop.
“I work for the police but I am a teacher.”
“What do you teach?” He replied by simultaneously throwing back his right shoulder and raising his fists in front of his face.
“Kung fu.” Wow, okay, definitely not messing with this guy…

We spoke within the limits of our communication abilities, talked about music. He likes Michael Jackson. I swear, practically everyone in this country is crazy about two people: Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. In fact, instead of saying “oh my god,” a lot of young people will instead say “oh my Lady Gaga.”

Our train swiftly glided into the Chengdu train station and before departing the young guy said to me in the most broken Chinglish accent: “good luck, my friend.” Does that mean I have a friend in the CCP now?

Chengdu, what a place. Unlike Chongqing, the city is completely flat and the streets are long and wide. If I were to describe Chengdu in a word it is “new.” Everything in the heart of the city is brand new. I’m talking about everything from street signs and sidewalks to buildings and buses. I took the first, and currently (but not for long) only, metro line in Chengdu from the train station to the stop closest to my hostel. The planning committee clearly took a page or two out of Shanghai’s development plan because I walked into the subway station and instinctively knew exactly what to do and where to go. 非常方便!So convenient! I would even say the sophistication of Chengdu’s metro line surpasses that of Shanghai’s extensive system. And although Chengdu only has the one line that connects the north and south like a spine, within five years there will be more subway lines branching off to the outer limbs of the city making it a supremely modernized metropolis. Somebody call the Chengdu government, they need to cut me a check.

Haha, I love this country.

Above all, though, it’s the people of Chengdu that make the city such a nice place. The people of Chengdu and Sichuan in general are known to lead very laid back lifestyles. And anywhere newbie travelers find themselves lost, they are likely to also find friendly directions from one of the locals. I asked one guy how to get to the street my hostel was on and before I knew it there were three complete strangers who were anxious to make sure I was going in the right direction.

The Traffic Inn Hostel was not the best hostel I have stayed in as far as accommodations go. But the staff are friendly and fun, and location is strategically convenient for anyone traveling by bus as the hostel sits literally right next to Chengdu’s major bus station.
For about five days room 218 was my home. And what a home it was. Also living in the dorm room were members of an all-star international line up. Jack from Australia, Constantine from Germany, Laura from England, and John from Quebec; all twenty-somethings living in China and studying Chinese. They’re great people and we all got along really well and had a fun time together. We would have made the UN proud.

We heard Chengdu has a decent night life so we asked one of the girls at the hostel reception for a recommendation of a good bar. She named a couple and wrote down the addresses on a small piece of paper so we could show the taxi driver where we wanted to go. “The Hump Bar? What kind of bar are you sending us to?”
Well we get there and it actually turned out to be called “The Hemp Bar.” I think either name would suffice, really.
It was a really coooool place man, like, the people and stuff were really chill, and the music was like super trippy. But no, seriously, it was a fun bar and a nice place to relax with my new friends. We returned the next night because they were featuring a bluegrass band from Quebec.

Yes, that is indeed a man in a cow suit, playing the mandolin.

In Chengdu, there is a considerably large Tibetan population that has carved out their own little quarter of the city. I ventured out, camera in hand, hoping to snap some shots of local Sichuan-Tibetan life as well as get a glimpse some of their colorful and ornate architecture. I was on my way to the main Tibetan area, plugged into my headphones, listening to music, when two Tibetan monks, one old and one young, emerged from a little shop on the street I was passing through.

We said hello and the old man looked quizzically at the wire of my headphones. He grasped it between two fingers and turned it over, examining it closely. I reached into my pocket to show him my MP3 player and then pointed to the headphones in my ear. I took them out and gave one to each of them. I believe it was John Mayer playing “Everyday I Have the Blues” at a live concert. I played air guitar as they listened to the music and bobbed to the beat. “Sounds good,” the old monk said, handing me back my headphones. The old man spoke Mandarin so we strolled through the streets chatting about music and Tibet and America, checking out sites along the way. I asked them where they were going and the old man replied “Oh, we’re just walking with you,” or “wherever you are going.”
I imagined the two of them were spending the day strolling through the streets aimlessly, but not without purpose. As if they were letting the Universe guide them, like a small boat pulled along through the shifting currents of a river. And here I was, a new element, a new celestial body pulling them into my orbit. As I walked on, the two monks followed close behind but I felt as though I still traveled alone.

Unfortunately the battery in my camera died and I forgot the spare back at the hostel so I missed the chance to get a photo with them. But they had a digital camera with them and we got a passerby to snap a quick couple of shots. Afterward, we parted ways with a handshake and a bow.

Long rods of incense burning before the shrine dedicated to the heroes of the Shu Kingdom.


Why of course you can take a picture with me. Never gets old.

I decided to venture out into the city a bit and find a good place to eat. I ended up stumbling upon the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and the surrounding district filled with shops catering to musicians.

SWEET. Like any other industry-specific marketplace in China, there were literally dozens of shops selling practically the same exact things. And I wonder: how do any of these places get by?

Next up: Pandas!!

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