Archive for June, 2010


Longqing Gorge

we think this is actual fog, not pollution, but thats not really clear

As far as gorges go, this one was pretty sweet

Actually did this trip on monday, but haven’t had much time to post since then. There’s barely been fifteen minutes this whole week where I haven’t been either wandering around china, doing homework, or sleeping; I generally write stuff here when I feel like studying isn’t getting me anywhere. In any event, the gorge was actually incredible. We got up bright and early Monday morning to catch our 8am bus for a two hour ride to the gorge. None of us had even heard of the place, much less knew what sorts of things to expect. All sorts of things from bungee jumping to hang gliding had been vaguely hinted at, though, so we were pretty excited (W/r/t/ hang gliding — it turned out to be a mistranslation of zipline. Unfortunately, I was way more interested in hang gliding than I was in bunjee jumping, so when the former option dissappeared I ended up doing neither. You can relax now, Mom).

om nom nom, says the dragon. tourists are delicious.

Tacky? nahhh

Anyway, on the way to the gorge, we passed a big section of the Great Wall on the bus. We’re going there in a week or so with the president of Northwestern, which is cool. We have also been promised a very, very good meal at a relatively upscale hotel. I may or may not be looking forward to this more than the wall itself — this food is supposed to be incredible. 

Once we got there, the only way to actually access the gorge and its river was to take a really long series of escalators up a mountain. It made me feel really, really lazy but was actually kind of awesome, especially considering that the Chinese have tastefully elected to conceal the escalators via a gigantic yellow dragon. Thus:

After we cleared the escalators, we found ourselves at the edge of a huge lake/river thing, which we naturally then cruised down to get to all the tourist attractions. The cruise itself though was probably one of my favorite parts of the trip though, considering that it was absolutely breathtaking the entire way. It eventually pulled up to a really sketchy metal dock in the heart of the gorge. We toured through a few temples, and then were set free to paddle around the lake in canoes, bunjee jump, zipline, or eat.

i think that's allison. unclear

Bunjee jumping off the edge of some random Chinese gorge. What could go wrong?

I watched the bunjee jumpers for a while, ate, and then just wandered around. We weren’t there for too too long, and had to leave within a couple hours. We cruised back, then took a really cool alpine-slide style thing down to the base. Just, for a second, look at that slide thing.

Basically, aside from I guess the temples, there wasn’t a single man-made part of this trip that didn’t look hastily welded together and extremely unsafe. But the whole experience went off without a single hitch, which has forced me to reconsider a little bit – I think i’m gradually coming to accept that appearances aren’t everything here. Alternatively, I’m wrong, everything actually is super sketchy, and I’m just stupidly lucky and should probably already have died at the hands of an insane taxi driver or something. We’ll just have to see.

Wangfujing

pay no attention to the dude in the middle

Me, lookin' kinda awkward. This is mainly to give you guys some sense of the scope of this market. HUGE place.

Chinese lesson #47: only white people eat scorpions. Today proved it pretty conclusively. We went to Wangfujing, a big famous market about twenty minutes away from where I’m living. We took the subway there which was pretty cool, costs 2 kuai (a bit under 30 cents) to ride… transportation here is, as always, cheap to the point of silliness.*  Anyway we got there and went to the part where they sell all the disgusting food (Wangfujing is known for putting bizarre things like this on sticks and claiming that they’re edible) and it was populated — almost exclusively — by white tourists presumably thinking that they were getting real the “Chinese” experience by eating cow testicles or snakes or whathaveyou. The only actual Chinese people there aside from the vendors were laughing and taking pictures of said tourists, then going to eat at McDonald’s. As an example, take this picture, in which Chris, Lauren, Chrissy, and I posed to provide a front for Jackie to photograph more awesome white people. All in all it was pretty excellent. Knowing full well that not even Chinese people eat scorpions regularly, I bought a stick full (of live ones! they only kill them RIGHT before you eat them, so they’re still wiggling as you walk up to the stand) and had myself some very crunchy appetizers.**

even better action-shot coming soon!

om nom nom.

I’d say it was probably the most manly thing I’ve done here yet, aside from perhaps crossing the 8-way by 8-way intersection on a bike, diagonally, when a good deal of lights were green. Japan does this thing where for busy intersections they’ll just take a time off every cycle to freeze all the lights so everyone can walk freely. China is having none of it.
I also had to leave halfway through the trip to go to an interview for qunar.com, which is like the Chinese version of kayak.com. I had a pretty hard time finding the place (taxis didn’t know where it was) but after some vague directions from the local police i was able to make it there on time. What’s more, I got the internship! I can work there winter quarter. On the way back though, taxis didn’t think it was worth their time to take me, or they were going the wrong direction, or they couldn’t understand me, the latter being highly worrisome to say the least. Gotta get better at my beijing accent, I suppose.
Anyway that took like two hours and once i got back we ate hot pot, which is a dish we learned about in class and is generally pretty awesome. I was clearly pretty excited about it.
Overall Wangfujing’s a fun place to go, especially if you want to eat things that are not intended to be eaten, or drink terrible drinks that, while awful, are full of dry ice.

*I know I probably talk about the craziness of prices here more than I should. This sort of thing should calm down as I get more adjusted to it. Sorry!
**Scorpion-eating action shot coming as soon as I can get Lauren to email it to me

Chinese badassery

Because I like to be Fair and Balanced, here’re some reasons why China is incredible.

  • we get this basic setup, with different foods, daily

    Free food is good food

    Chinese food is, for the most part, absolutely awesome. I haven’t really had a bad meal yet except for a mishap at the forbidden city when I botched some Chinese and ordered the wrong thing. Wound up with like some bizarre really-tough-meat dish that was just a problem. The vast majority of the time though, the food is delicious. We also get these free lunches every day, which have been a great way to expose oneself to new foods that wouldn’t necessarily get ordered otherwise.  I’ve found some bizarre but tasty new dishes in this fashion. Aside from this kind of food, there’re also bakeries and ramen shops and all sorts of restaurants scattered around campus. Tomorrow  we even get access to the university dining halls, which are, as always, stupidly cheap.

  • it's a pretty campus, in places.The Tsinghua campus is a great place to live. We’re in a section of the school where all the roads are closed off to cars, so there are just fleets of bikes rolling around everywhere — getting around on a campus that’s nearly the size of UT is, therefore, shockingly easy and convenient. Also, our school is built on the site of the royal garden of the Qing dynasty (清华园), which ended in 1911. Consequently you’ll be biking around and just randomly discover parts of the old garden, which are beautiful. Beyond that, the campus also has lots of supermarkets, bike repair shops, banks, and really everything else. If it weren’t for how awesome Beijing is, there’d never be any reason to leave the campus at all, which brings me to…
  • The city.
    getting here almost killed me

    This is a 15 minute bike ride from the lake above

    Say you need a new cord for your Nintendo wii. Say you need a club where the entire dancefloor bounces up and down. Maybe you just want to go watch a world cup game on the lagoon in hohai. Or you want to eat at Pizza Hut. Or you want to go to the forbidden city, or the summer palace. Or see your friends at Beijing U. For the most part, this is 10 kuai — about $1.50 — away. Going down by tiananmen will run you around 45 kuai on the outside, a bank-breaking eight bucks. I’ve been here 4 full days. Haven’t even THOUGHT of going back to the same place twice. For food, for shopping, for anything. There is just so much stuff so close, it’s mind boggling. For instance, I wanted an electronic dictionary yesterday. So we biked over to a gigantic electronics warehouse maybe twenty minutes from our dorm, and got one. This store was incredible — if it was electronic, you could get it… if you were willing to do some

  • Haggling.
    always good to have Chinese friends

    Jackie with the dictionary, in front of the store he conquered.

    A huge cultural adjustment to make when coming to China, I’ve gradually come to realize that for the most part, price tags are meaningless. Aside from big department stores and fancy restaurants, you can ALWAYS bargain to get better prices. Considering that the prices here seem three or four times too low already, this is a little weird at first. For instance, my bike would have cost 200 kuai, but because six of us were buying and we all threatened to walk away, we got it down to 140 a piece, with a lock and basket thrown in for free. 200 kuai is only thirty dollars. But taking that price would have been ridiculous — why pay thirty when you can get twenty, plus a good lock? The guys at the electronics store tried to sell me my dictionary for 1000 kuai, or 150 bucks. Similar products in the US cost about 200. 1000 kuai is ostensibly an OK deal.  However, I had a secret weapon named Jackie, who speaks fluent Chinese. He wore the increasingly-angry frustrated salesmen (I was about to pay the thousand) down a hundred kuai at a time, until it was down to 700, their ‘lowest price.’ Jackie then mentioned that there were 49 other kids looking for dictionaries who lived fifteen minutes away. I ended up paying 630 kuai, Jackie having singlehandedly saved me $55 USD.

  • The way batteries are sold. Oh, so you’re buying batteries? Surely you will be more willing to favor our brand if we throw in a gluestick or pocket knife in the package, right?

Chinese… tomfoolery?

Initially this post was gonna describe my living situation and daily routine, but now I feel like making a small list of the little things I’ve noticed in China that it never even occurred to me that I’d miss. EDIT: changed name for consistency

  • Love me some 2009 peanut butter

    Click on this picture to see the larger image, then look at the expiration dates.

    Food that isn’t expired. I can’t stress how frustrating this is. Granted, this wasn’t surprising on a lot of sketchy street vendors that hang around campus, but I was completely blindsided by the lack of ‘fresh’ food in grocery stores and convenience stores. In my vast, three-whole-day experience here, I’ve come to accept that any ‘western’ product at all, even if it’s Chinese Fanta, expired about two months ago. This is true whether you’re buying it on the street, at a 7-11, or even in the closest thing they have to an H.E.B.   ***EDIT*** according to Albert and Will, both legitimate Asians, this may well just be the manufacture date. If this is true, that’d be great.

  • Maybe it'll be good for my back, or something.Mattresses. You ever been so tired that you just want to come home and jump into bed? Here, that’ll get you a broken tailbone. We’ve got maybe a four-inch-thick mattress _protector_ between us and the comfy, comfy metal and wood.
  • Grocery bags. Hope you’re wearing cargo shorts.
  • Tap water/recycling bins. China’s a bit like Mexico in this respect. You have to bring bottled water everywhere, and just throw the bottles away. This is due to the presence of metals in the public water. Companies apparently use said water sometimes in their products, so consequently you’ll open a beer up only to discover that it tastes uncannily like rust. Happened to the girl next to me last night. Was kinda funny but also pretty scary, to be honest.
  • Toilet paper. Bring your own. You won’t find it in practically any restaurants or other stores in China. It’s only in some of the stalls in the dorms. You get used to carrying around some toilet paper in your pocket at all times, but it’s still pretty bizarre.
  • Way to go, international student dorm

    Fantastic.

    Toilets that don’t require you to squat. I thought I was done with this shit when I left Japan two summers ago. Imagine my surprise when I opened our bathroom stalls and was confronted by this:

I don’t mean to whine, though. Really, I’m having an excellent time, and most of this stuff just makes me laugh. Just gotta get used to it.

MAO MAO MAO

I'm tempted to just stop this post here. What else needs to be said?

We were supposed to start class today.  At the last minute though, our administrators realized that sending us to the forbidden city on a Saturday would be an absolutely terrible idea because of how crowded it gets.

It was, of course, still pretty packed. We were able to navigate only after lots of yelling and a little bit of aggression.  Overall though, considering that there were 50 of us, we did a pretty good job getting everyone through the whole tour. We only lost one guy, who unfortunately  had neither a cell phone nor any command whatsoever of the Chinese language. Cab drivers wouldn’t take him for some reason, so the kid literally just rode around on random buses for two hours saying “Tsinghua” a lot, and somehow actually made it home.

Relatedly, I am quickly becoming convinced that everyone in this program is a total badass.

Anyway, the whole trip was pretty awesome. We toured all the way from Zedong’s ever-so-phallic MAOsoleum into the forbidden city (a complex of 9,999 rooms that housed all the Ming and Qing emperors and their concubines and eunuchs) and out the other side. We saw the throne room, dozens of imperial art and gifts and sculptures, the garden, and a lot more. Of particular note was a really ornate, three-story opera house that you can see here (linked instead of embedded for fear of this post becoming too photo heavy). Basically the emperor sat across from this thing with his concubines or visiting officials or whatever and this whole building was used to put on massive cross-level plays.

Some logistical stuff

Time info:
Beijing is on UTC+8 time, which means it’s 13 hours ahead of US central time, 12 hours ahead of eastern time, etc.

Hours that I am in class: 9-12, 2-3:30 pm.
Hours that I am busy on Saturday: usually 9-3, maybe later depending on the trip. This is the day we travel around to all sorts of random places in china. I’m free all day sundays.

Contact info:
Skype: kevin.g.shepherd (Skype me! I have a new microphone so it should work just fine. I’ll be on skype pretty much whenever I’m in the room)
Email: kevin.g.shepherd[at]gmail (Checked very frequently)
Phone: 15010674857 (Dont know how to text internationally, but I can call internationally. Can text and call domestically)

Trips incoming:
June 23rd:           Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City
June 28th:            Cruise in Longqing Gorge
July 10:                 Great Wall
July 15-20:          Shanghai World Expo
July 24:                 Jingshan Park and Beihai Park
July 31:                 Antique Market and Temple of Heaven
August 7:             Summer Palace
August 15:           Vacate dorm
August 16-29:    Attempt to survive in Beijing. A little terrifying.

Dinner soon, but today has basically been completely nuts. Really, the prices here are the hardest things to adjust to. For instance, today at breakfast we fed 6 people for a combined 20 yuan, which is about 3 dollars even. Everybody got an egg, some oatmeal type stuff, two steamed buns (包字), a drink, and a sticky bun. Granted this was a little cheap even for china, because this particular dining hall is government subsidized for tsinghua students only. You need like a special card to eat there. Fortunately a woman took pity on us this morning because the grocery store beneath our classroom was closed and we had nowhere to eat, so she gave us a meal card with 35 yuan on it. This card is rechargeable. Foreigners are really not supposed to have them. Did someone say 50 cent breakfasts for the whole summer? Because I hear the chinese communist party is paying. Hell yeah.

Mmm, tastes like subsidies

The Communist dining hall. Delicious.

Then later, I got both a cell phone with 200 minutes and a bike for a combined $50 USD. Basically, this country is incredible. I mean granted the bike is flimsy and terrifying and the brakes aren’t what one might call “reliable” but hey, it’s China.

Some people study abroad for noble reasons; they go to some underdeveloped hellhole and try to Make a Difference. The ones who aren’t in Africa or South America are in the room across from me, studying Chinese public health, ostensibly with the intent to be able to do something about the miserable state it’s in.

Some want immersion; they live with a host family, try to go native. They’re a few miles away at Beijing University, cramming Chinese down their throats for five or six hours a day.

Still others don’t really care about the “foreign” aspect at all. They go to Western Europe or Australia just for a change of pace, or attend renown universities that excel in a given area of study. The equivalent here is the native Chinese speakers who’ve come along to pick up a few Northwestern credits and have a good time. They don’t face a language barrier at all, generally have already lived in China at some point in their lives, and are the reason I was able to eat breakfast this morning.

I can’t honestly say I’m here for any reasons as understandable as these. This is easily the most ‘foreign’ place I’ve ever been, I’m living in an English-speaking international dorm (only studying mandarin two or three hours daily), and certainly am not attempting to change China. China wouldn’t want what I’d give it. This culture is one of the oldest and highly ingrained on the planet; it’s in many ways as overwhelming as the pollution that fogs your vision and turns your snot black. I’m just along for the ride.

God, I wish this was just fog

The view from our dorm. That's not cloud cover.

So why am I in Beijing right now? Course credit, I guess (i’m majoring in econ and asian/middle eastern studies, and i’m in the “Emerging Legal and Economic Structures” program) but also just to see something entirely different from anything I’ve experienced before. I may not be ‘immersed,’ but i’ll still be studying a bunch of Chinese, and hopefully becoming relatively conversational. If I fail at this, i’m going to have a tough time when august 15th rolls around — that’s when the program ends, and I have two more weeks in china with my roommate. No schedules, no school, no job, no responsibilities at all — just me and a bizarre new country.

I’m more excited for this summer than I’ve been for pretty much any experience in recent memory. I’m with about fifty other kids from Northwestern from all different majors and backgrounds; everyone I’ve met so far seems interesting.

I’ve gotta go change some currency and buy a bike now. Have a pretty funny story about breakfast (we cheated the chinese government after only maybe twenty hours in the country. hell yeah) that i’ll tell in the next post probably.

Tiananmen square and forbidden city tomorrow.