A Travellerspoint blog

"Mid-Autumn" and other summer months

In which school begins and weekends still feel like summer...

25 °C

After a less-than-exciting week of “in-service” during which I became acquainted with a new crop of weird colleagues, did a bit of work and a lot of socializing, plans began to form to satisfy the dire need to get off campus (already). In a series of evening chats while drinking copious quantities of Yanjing beer and inhaling pack upon pack of cheap Chinese cigarettes, a number of my gentlemen colleagues determined that our apartment building roof was in need of a barbecue grill. They visited a local chuanr (meat kebab) establishment, obtained advice and a sketch, and then put in a custom order with a grill fabricator in town. A few days later, a five foot long grill was installed on the roof, perched atop a neat stack of scavenged four by fours. The typical Chinese chuanr grill is very narrow, for grilling meats on sticks and grill baskets of fish laid above hot coals. Grill men stand over their prized instruments, waving woven fans to distribute heat evenly and keep the coals burning.

To welcome the school year and the shiny new grill, the boys held a potluck barbecue for the teaching staff. I was a bit worried as, a few days before the event, the sign-up list read, mostly, “beer,” “beer,” “my handsome ass,” “a toilet roll,” and “beer.” However, as the party started (to the some old-school rap on iPod and under a typically clouded sky), friends began to roll in bearing beer, and also chicken wings, pork and chicken kebabs, salads, bread, fruit and more beer. I made lamb meatballs with pine nuts and cilantro (on kebab sticks) with a cilantro-yogurt dipping sauce, a huge variety of marinated vegetables, and flatbread dough. The meatballs had a tendency to slide off the sticks, but were still pretty amazing. In the typical improvisational style of all attempts at “Western” celebrations in China, everyone stood around with his or her own pair of chopsticks and ate off of communal plates that were passed from hand to hand. I highly recommend this as a plate-saving technique at your next barbecue! The grill men did a superb job of cooking the food to perfection, while wearing chef’s jackets that the grill-maker threw in for free!

The night ended with a short rainstorm that sent everyone huddling under the very small covered area of the roof, and then a guitar sing-a-long in the dark after the rain passed.

The following day, Natalie, Brad and I set out for the Forbidden City. In the year I’ve been in Beijing, I had not visited this most historic of all landmarks. We figured that post-Olympics would be the ideal time to go, as the sprucing-up would be complete, and the giant crowds mostly returned home. Although the front of the City was hidden behind green-fabric-covered scaffolding for a ‘tween Olympics and Paralympics touch-up, the rest of the Palace Museum was welcoming visitors in reasonable numbers.

After a year of reminding myself that I really must visit this landmark, I suppose I had built it up in my head. It is the largest collection of preserved ancient buildings in China, and home to the Ming (constructed 1406) and Qing (1644-1911; the last dynasty) Emperors. However, they are mostly empty buildings. Numerous, enormous, dusty, empty buildings. Some museum exhibits show bits and bobs of furniture, jewelry and clothing of the emperors and concubines, and most halls have a throne and some side tables, but insight into the lives and workings of a functioning palace are really lacking. Signs in English did make it clear that life was boring, and this or that cavernous building was where some or other emperor changed his underpants during the new moon that fell on even numbered days in years of the Tiger, but overall, I wanted more. How did the concubines live? Did they get along with one another? What did they eat? How did they cook it? What did the dining table look like? Where did they keep the chopsticks and how many pairs did they have and what were they made of? Where was the royal outhouse? What did they read? What games did they play? What did the children do for fun? How did they communicate across the vast expanse of the palace? These questions remain unanswered.

The buildings themselves are beautiful and well-maintained. I especially love the roofs and ceilings. The gardens and man-made rock sculptures and fish ponds are also quite pretty. But it must have been a dreadfully boring life…

After the Forbidden City, while looking for a reasonably priced restaurant with a picture and/or English menu (I can’t read, you see), we happened across a beautiful little park. The green space featured a quiet river with white marble bridges spanning it at regular intervals. There were beautiful flowering plants, benches, sculptures and paths all dappled with some genuine sunlight that managed to fight through the clouds. Natalie and I are going to have our respective wedding photos done here (after we have custom silk embroidered wedding gowns made), and have our husbands added digitally at a later date (like, when we find husbands).

Then, the school year commenced, with a bumper crop of tenth graders. For the first week, the new students chose their elective classes by attending all of them and trying out all of the teachers for the sciences, history, economics and philosophy. I had all 250 tenth graders for a series of lessons that didn’t really matter. I only managed to remember a few names, such as “That’s nice, Jack” and “Sit down, Henry.” I hate the first week of school…

The following weekend, Natalie, a French-Canadian history teacher named Mathieu, and I went back into the city for some shopping and culture adventures. We wandered down some cute shopping streets and then around Houhai lake – one of the best areas in the city for a stroll. Tiny boutiques and bars line the narrow streets leading to, and encircling a large, man-made lake near the center of the city. The lake boasts a duck island, paddle boats, glistening lotus plants and big-bellied Chinese men swimming in their skivvies. Following our stroll, we visited a huge clothing market near the zoo that surprised us with their selection of good-quality leather shoes that sometimes actually came in my size. I haven’t bought any yet, but we will be back. I did buy a copy of a Max Mara knee-length spring/fall coat in a pretty brown floral print. The following day, we went to the Capital Museum. This modern museum is housed in a gorgeous building that features a giant, tilted copper column inside (which itself houses the most Willy Wonka-esque bathrooms – I got woozy walking down the access hallway)! The museum focuses on Chinese history, including Qing dynasty Beijing (complete with dough modeled diorama of street life, and an entire wedding-night bed chamber!), Beijing opera, and a new exhibit on ancient (as old as Neolithic!) artifacts from China. The latter exhibit was packed with hoards of people, but worth it to gaze on extraordinarily early metal-work and soup caldrons that made me hungry.

During previous two forays into the city, I possessed the highest level of Chinese among my friends (which, if you’ve heard my Chinese, is pretty pathetic). I managed to get us fed and transported with minimal embarrassment and error, and even managed to order duck and vegetables off a Chinese-language menu. This is progress.

Week two of school brought more stability: classes were set. I had four sections of about 35 students each that each met four times during the week. I still only know a few names (“Vivian, sit up” and “Shaun, take your hat off,” for example), but the students so far are very well-behaved and interested. I hadn’t realized how far my students from last year progressed in their English abilities over the course of one year, and I had to constantly remind myself to adjust my vocabulary (which, after three years in non-English-speaking areas is ruined anyway) and speaking tempo. Then, just as quickly as they had all arrived, they have all disappeared for two weeks of military training. Miss Boiteau is officially on vacation.

Natalie, Brad, Aaron and I returned to the city on Friday, Paralympics tickets in hand. Beijing has spent nearly as much energy hyping up the Paralympic Games as it did the able-bodied version. The opening ceremony was impressive (far better than the preceding closing ceremony), and featured arm ballet and other beautifully rendered artistic and musical feats that were very inspired and inspiring – all taking note of the special nature of the Paralympics – showing different and creative ways to use the body for dance and acrobatics.

Friday night, I had a most spectacular case of food poisoning (my first case in China, actually – how lucky I have been)! I can’t even name the culprit, having eaten the same dinner as Aaron and Natalie. Who knows…maybe I unthinkingly licked a pole on the bus… But recovery was swift, and the memory of the agony is fading quickly…

We were lucky to obtain tickets to volleyball – sitting and wheelchair rugby (formerly called “murderball”). We watched the Latvian women’s team beat Japan, and then the Iraqi men’s team beat Japan. The sport is played by athletes with paralysis of the lower body or who are without one or both legs. The net is lowered so the bottom edge is on the floor. All players sit (six on each side) on the floor, and their rear ends must remain on the floor during play. Otherwise, the game is just like volleyball. The Japanese teams were the most fun to watch. The women, especially, exuded fun, and were exciting to watch. The team-work was excellent. A “dig” in volleyball – sitting is especially amazing, as players launch themselves backwards (instead of leaping forwards) to return the ball. A downside of these matches came (perhaps predictably) from the spectators. The majority was Chinese, and they showed clear favoritism for the Latvian and Iraqi teams, despite having no strong connection to either. The feeling was that the spectators were not so much cheering for the Latvians and Iraqis than against the Japanese. Aaron leaned forward and politely asked one woman (in Chinese) why she was rooting for the Iraq team. “Because we hate Japan and the Japanese!” she stated loudly in English. Further discussions with nearby spectators yielded history lessons on World War II and the rape of Nanjing, as well as one woman who felt sorry for the people of Iraq. Aaron asked, “What do the actions of the Japanese in WWII have to do with these volleyball players?” No real answer was returned… I tried to remain neutral and to cheer for both teams, but as the games progressed, it became more and more difficult to have fun in the midst of such a negative crowd.

During the Olympics while speaking to my volunteer colleagues, the topic of Sino-Japanese relations arose (this may have been after a discussion of car makes…) and some very typical sentiments about the Japanese were raised. They seem to be almost universally hated by the Chinese because of their actions in 1937 (Google “rape of Nanjing” for a history lesson), even by Chinese who admit to having no relation to any victims of war crimes. Recently, the whole issue was brought to the forefront of many minds again when a new Japanese history book was discovered by the Chinese which did not address or admit the actions of Japan in China. Despite the 70 years since the occupation, the topic appears to be a still-open wound for the second generation removed. The Chinese belive strongly that “Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide for the future.” I believe that this is an important statement and that the past should be preserved in order to aid in decision-making in the future. But should feelings remaining from past atrocities be thrust upon athletes at an international competition that makes an attempt to be apolitical and to promote world peace (and, especially, such games played by disabled athletes)? I think not. Can we hate the crimes and the criminals of the past but extend welcome to contemporary countrymen as friends and guests? I asked my colleagues, “Will you pass your sentiment towards the Japanese onto your children?” “Yes, so we will never forget the past.” There must be a middle ground: teach the history without the personal emotion; teach love and building good relationships as a way to avoid future conflicts. Perhaps in the next generation…

And following this sporting/cultural education event, we moved on to wheelchair rugby or “murderball.” Played with a volleyball on a basketball court with soccer-width goals on the short ends of the court, wheelchair rugby is played five on five. The aim is for a player to roll over the goal line with the ball in his possession. Opposing teammates block, slam and interfere to keep the team with possession from scoring. Technically, teams are of mixed sex, but only one of the four teams had a woman, and she played for the last thirty seconds of that match. The game is full-contact, and wheelchair maintenance and tipped-over players are the norm. The game is high-scoring and involves a great deal of strategy to avoid lock-ups and to break through defense into the end zone. Australia had one amazing player who was faster, stronger and tougher than anyone else we witnessed that day. The maneuvering is incredible, with tight turns and spins and fast breakaways to score points. This star player was overturned at one point, onto his back. Players previously overturned were righted by the coaches, but this guy flipped himself onto his stomach and then righted himself by pushing against the floor with his arms. It was dazzling. One member of the German team had one complete and one partial arm, and put in an incredible performance as the fastest member of his team, and a whiz at setting up passes and running interference. I am so glad that we could witness these incredible athletes compete in the highest level of their sports – it was more exciting that watching matches during the able-bodied version of the Games.

Sunday brought the Mid-Autumn Festival, a celebration of the harvest and the full moon. We visited the Dongyue Temple, which is dedicated to Tai Shan, a Taoist mountain. Inside, in rooms around the largest courtyard, are dozens of “departments” governing the life of all Taoists. Some sound suspiciously like government bureaus (Department of Papers and Documents) while others have a nature-y slant (Department of Mammals and Department of Aquatic Animals) and still others seem to exist to scare citizens into appropriate behavior (Department of Implementing 15 Kinds of Death and Department of Abortion). Each department features painted plaster statues depicting the judges of our moral character (men, gods and monsters) meting out punishments and decisions on men and women (and sometimes animal-headed people). Each department features a collection box so you can make extra sure that your request to the Department of Hell is duly noted. In addition to these variously bizarre departments, there are several halls of huge plaster gods dressed in saffron embroidered robes, including one hall where you can pray, burn incense, and register with a priest your wish for offspring. Other rooms featured jewelry and headwear (some a strikingly poisonous blue color) from times past, and a very informative exhibit on the origins and ritual of the Mid-Autumn festival.

Once, long ago, the earth had ten suns, but this was hot and chaotic as they always fought and competed with one another. They scorched the earth and caused drought and famine. A great archer named Hou Yi used his bow to shoot down nine of the suns, which made him a hero. The Empress of Heaven rewarded him with an elixir which would allow him to live in the sky among the gods. But Hou Yi had a wife named Chang-e who he loved and didn’t want to leave. So he hid the elixir in his house and told no one but his wife. However, a rascal named Peng Meng found out about the elixir and, when all the men were out hunting, went to Hou Yi and Cheng-e’s house, and forced her to give it to him. Instead, Cheng-e took the elixir herself, and flew up to the sky. To be closer to her love, she stopped at the moon, where she can still be seen today. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, you can see her most clearly, and think about your family far away, or be thankful that they are close by. The holiday is celebrated by eating round food like mooncakes and fruit, leaving offerings for ancestors, painting plaster rabbits riding tigers, and wandering around looking at the moon. (One can also eat a pomelo in order to obtain flawless complexion and find a good husband – I’ll report back on the success of this later.)

Aaron, Natalie and I bought mooncakes, had a delicious dinner in a tiny hutong restaurant (which included moon-themed songs sung beautifully by another patron and answered by Natalie and I singing “Blue Moon” and “Bad Moon Rising”), and wandered the paths of Houhai, people watching and gazing in the general direction of the cloud-obscured moon. As we were sitting by the lake, suddenly, a chilly gale of wind rushed in, blowing leaves off of trees, extinguishing lantern flames and ushering in a hard, cold rain. We dashed into the nearest bar, a sad, little empty place, and ordered some expensive drinks. I drank a mojito – made with lemons. Lemons. Come on, people – just because they have the same name as limes in Chinese doesn’t mean it’s the same fruit!! To be fair, it was quite delicious. We lounged inside until the rain passed and then strolled home, past a man standing in front of his house on a very busy street corner wearing only man panties and chatting away on his mobile phone.

Posted by ucpegasus 07:37 Archived in China Comments (0)

Beijing 2008: An introspective review

In which the good, the bad and the ugly join together in the name of international unity and sport.

sunny 28 °C

The Olympics have thrilled me since I was a little girl. I loved watching gymnastics and wondering what it would feel like to come so close to flying. The skin on my arms rose in goose bumps (and still does!) when I hear John Williams’ “Summon the Heroes.” As a family, we took a walk down the bobsled track one summer in Lake Placid, New York, years after those games had ended. Sylvie and I planned and executed synchronized swimming routines in the pool every summer. My geography improved as we found Lillehammer, Norway, on our globe. And during the Opening Ceremonies, we watched as a family as the largest stage shows in the world unfolded.

I hold high the ideals of the Olympic Movement: friendship, solidarity, and fair play in a spirit of world peace, understanding, and unity. My experience as a volunteer existed as a tug of war: between circumstances than met and even exceeded these ideals, and those that flew in the face of the Olympic spirit.

I was often asked “Why (and how) did you become an Olympic volunteer?” “How” is simple: I applied (as did Aaron) online through a website (in English) designed for the recruitment of foreign volunteers. We were then contacted for an interview. Aaron and I traveled to a government district in the city on a very, very cold winter day (dressed foolishly in professional clothing, which didn’t involve sensible shoes). We found the appointed location: a heavily guarded grey stone compound, with guards that prevented our entry. We were sent around the corner to a glorified loading dock where we waited for our interviewer in an unheated room into which packages were received through a door which was left open. Our interviewer didn’t (or couldn’t) take us in to her office, so we were interviewed in this location, as we sat freezing in our winter jackets, professional dress hidden inside our layers. I was interviewed in English, Aaron in Chinese. It went well, and we shivered along home. Many weeks later, we were contacted with the login information to a website, which seemed to suggest that we had been chosen as volunteers. And, I must brag, only 4% of foreign volunteer applicants were chosen, and I have no idea why I was so fortunate! Spoken Chinese was stated as a prerequisite, so clearly my smile must be dazzling…or something.

Why did I become a volunteer? From the time my plane set down in Beijing on August 17, 2007, in the shadow of the Olympic-ringed control tower, I have been inundated with Olympic messages and propaganda. Nearly every block had an Olympic countdown clock, and every street was lined with “One World One Dream” banners. The city was awash in parti-colored, lucky-cloud-and-flame-themed banners, posters and billboards. The Fuwa moved in and made themselves at home in my heart (and on the bus, and the television screen, and in giant plush likenesses of themselves all around the city). In the same manner that this country uses to infect its citizens with nationalistic pride (I won’t lie: I feel some sense of national pride for China; this is a pretty awesome place to live), the Beijing government dosed (or doused?) the public with Olympic propaganda until everyone stood behind and supported the movement. This was especially evident during the games: there were volunteers, and then there were volunteers. China Mobile (official city volunteers, and then everyone else with a similar shirt working all manner of non-volunteer job from cashier to street sweeper) and most amusingly, the Yanjing beer community watch folks replaced Beijing’s regular citizens. The Yanjing folks were mostly middle-aged to older people with street-side jobs, or no jobs, who wore Olympics/Beer shirts and just kept an eye on the community. There mere (overwhelming) presence in our temporary neighborhood in Beijing caused us to register with the police, a nuisance step we were going to skip! Everyone seemed to sport a shirt that read “Volunteer” or an Olympics accredidation card hanging around their neck. I really do think that one third to one half of citizens of Beijing were in some way participating (or dressed to give the impression of participation) in the games. In this sense of national pride for this enormous accomplishment of this developing city, I felt strongly that I, as a guest in this land, ought to contribute to the success of my host nation in her quest to rise as a respected member of the world community. On a less altruistic level, I wanted to be able to say that I volunteered for the Olympics, and to have that experience as a little part of the collective in one of the largest and most well-known events on the planet. And one that had captivated me so since childhood. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but something that I just felt compelled to do.

The process of going from an accepted applicant to actual volunteer was arduous. Information dribbled in regarding our venue assignment (first, the triathlon course, then changed to the Olympic Sport Center Cluster), meetings of foreign volunteers, and trainings by task and serving location. We signed agreements regarding dates of availability, later to find that trainings began earlier. I sat through lots of meetings in Chinese, and found that I was just as well off without a translation (but thank Aaron anyway for his hard work aiding in my understanding)! On the whole, the foreign volunteers were a diverse group: mostly students at Beijing universities, mostly with a high level of Chinese.

Eventually, I learned that I would be working at the Ying Dong Natatorium, home of water polo and the swimming leg (all four minutes of it) of the modern pentathlon. Training at my venue commenced with my shift of 150 college students, mostly from Beijing Normal University. Our task, as Spectator Services Hosts (“the face of the Games!”) was to stand at the gates of the venue to check spectators’ tickets (with a smile, “Beijing’s Best Business Card” which I can now say in Chinese and in Chinese Sign Language). We spent one eight hour day practicing punching a hole in the stub end of tickets while standing in the hot sun wearing long pants and aprons. We did a lot of standing around and chatting. My colleagues were wonderful and helpful. They were mostly chemistry majors, and I hope I inspired a few to become teachers. They are the best of the best in this competitive world of college admissions and studies, and scored in the top of the applicant pool on the exam to become a volunteer. Ten percent of Chinese college student applicants were selected to volunteer.

Having been trained and suited in the best Adidas had to offer, the games began. With the security checkpoints located around the perimeter of the area (encompassing my venue, the Olympic Sport Center Gymnasium (home of handball and wushu), and the Olympic Sport Center Stadium (home of horse jumping and running for the pentathlon), we didn’t need to worry about security matters. Spectators lined up at our white gates, and presented their tickets, which we checked for validity (by eye, and electronic chip reader – I never spotted a counterfeit, much to my surprise – perhaps they were weeded out at security), and then the stub was torn off (despite our days practicing wielding the hole punch)! After the games, we provided directions (to the bus, subway, taxis, food, and other venues). I loved giving directions to foreign tourists. Their relief at finding a native English speaker was palpable. I also loved chatting with English-speakers. Often, when people approached me, it was because they had a problem or needed help. I found that by approaching people and asking how they were enjoying their time in Beijing, the conversation was delightful and people were having a truly wonderful time.

Despite meeting some wonderful people who were dressed appropriately, spoke kindly during our interactions, and even gave me pins (a Minnesota loon and an Atlanta Budweiser – thank you to those two Americans!), there was a dark side to our role as Spectator Services Hosts that overshadowed my experience at the Games.

The behavior of some spectators was atrocious. I am the first person to admit that travelling in China is difficult, many processes are circuitous and nonsensical, and that things are not done the way they are done in one’s home country. I get frustrated and angry and sometimes am not the most polite person to, for example, the National Center for Performing Arts employee who is trying to enforce the stupid “no cameras” rule. However, during my time standing at the gate, I was mooed at by impatient American men because we had to wait until the venue was cleared from the last event before letting people in; I was informed, repeatedly, and in a nasty tone of voice, that “You don’t know anything, you don’t know anything!” by a European man who wasn’t satisfied with the bus and subway routes and taxi options I explained to him as a means to travel to his next event (perhaps he wanted me to beam him over there in my teleporter?); and worst, by the Eastern European fans without tickets who begged, swore, yelled, grabbed, pushed, shoved and intimidated their way into the venue.

At the beginning, we were doing a good job enforcing the ticketing rules. As with every other event in the civilized world, a person is expected to hold their own, valid, unused ticket, and to have it invalidated upon entry to the venue. Each ticket is good for one entry for one person for the appointed event (which consisted, at my venue, of three consecutive games). I was pretty sure this made sense. Unfortunately, “special circumstances” arose, where people insisted that they leave and come back, but instead sold their invalidated ticket and the new owner put up such a fight that my boss (a college student herself) let the person in. Once word got out that tickets “were” transferable, the situation spiraled out of control. This was compounded by the fact that there were many empty seats in the venue, due to the practice of handing out large blocks of tickets to large corporations and The Party which were never used. This was further compounded by the problem that, as the Games progressed, semifinal and final games approached, and fans discovered that their team was still in the running, but there were no tickets to be had. An attitude among some fans of “This is just China, who are they to stand between me and my team; we have the right to spectate” created mobs of ticketless and lawless fans mobbing towards the gates right before their teams were to play important games, and just shoving their way through the ticket check. This spiraled to its lowest point one afternoon when more than a dozen Hungarian men (who seem to be genetically enormous people with huge bellies) chanting “Ria, Ria, Hungaria” and jumping up and down pushed into my gate. I single-handedly held them back while my colleagues cowered in a corner, and security looked on uninterestedly. A man grabbed my wrist and began swearing at me, and people began pushing from behind, forcing me out of the way. I called for the help of security to no avail. Finally, I felt so violated that I walked away, letting in a hoard of people without tickets. Reports from crowd control inside were that no one sat in their assigned seat, no one sat, and that the noise and rowdy behavior were out of control. Unfortunately, Hungary beat the US for the men’s gold medal. Too bad the Olympics don’t reward good fan behavior.

I felt awful after this incident. Was I the only person who cared about the rules, about doing the right thing, and about maintaining the value of tickets held by law-abiding spectators? Chinese spectators stood in line, each held a ticket, and even had tickets for their babies! They were polite and well-behaved. Most Chinese struggled to get tickets, or were fortunate enough to receive tickets through their employers. Those who didn’t have tickets stayed home. The opinion of my supervisors was that if people wanted to get in, or if their teams were playing or if they needed to leave and come back in, or if they had given their ticket to someone else between games within a single session that we should just let them in. I asked, “But why check tickets?” The answer? “People must have a valid ticket to enter.” “But what about that guy you just let in without a ticket?” “He had a special situation.” “But why not just let everyone in?” “Rules are rules.” This selective application of “the rules” to those who are kind enough to obey them, and to reward those who are not, is sickening to me. Perhaps it follows the desire to avoid losing face (which I lost by trying to hold back the Hungarians and ultimately failing) and to avoid causing others to lose face by informing them that their ticket is invalid. Perhaps it is just indicative of the legal system in this country where laws are selectively enforced for selective people, and severity of punishment varies wildly.

At Aaron’s venue, the same thing happened. Often, people without tickets were held for ten or twenty minutes while a supervisor argued with the spectator. Every single encounter ended with the ticketless spectator being granted admission. “Why?” Aaron asked. It was explained by his supervisor, “We should make it inconvenient for them, to let them know that what they are doing is against the rules.” But why, when we all know that the person will eventually be let in? What does that teach anyone, except that being pushy and obnoxious eventually leads to success? What does it cause except aggravation and wasted time to the volunteers, who then are viewed with less and less respect?

And, most importantly, why do people think they deserve admission without a ticket? Is this the way things work in the Eastern Bloc? Or in China?

I do have some suggestions. First, tickets were sold on the mainland through a difficult system that left most people ticketless. It also poured tickets into private corporations and to foreign travel agents. Unsold and unused tickets were far too common, but remained unavailable inside China.. Some same-day ticketing might alleviate the empty seat problem, and cut down on scalping (which was rife, and offered extremely marked-up tickets – 10 to 20 times face value in some cases). Festival-style ticketing may provide the kind of atmosphere that many spectators were looking for. A day pass with admission to every event (within capacity, first come, first served at popular events) would let people sample lots of different events (as opposed to three consecutive handball games) in different venues, and would alleviate the problem of invalidated ticket trading and do away with the no re-entry rule. Overseas corporations should not receive big blocks of tickets that they can’t or won’t use. Filling seats boosts morale for players and looks better on tv.

Many people complained to me about security. It was tight. To enter any venue, a spectator passed through a metal detector and then was searched again with a hand-held wand. Bags were passed through an x-ray machine, and random things were taken away. When entering the kayak slalom, volunteers confiscated my ibuprofen and one of my two ball-point pens, neither of which were listed as contraband. Upon entering the venue, we saw lots of people with flags on pointy poles and lots of noisemakers – both expressly against the rules! Tickets were checked at security, and only those with valid tickets for that day’s events were admitted (which begs the question, “Why were people without tickets even at my gate?!”). The Olympic Sports Center Cluster was outfitted with surface to air missiles, tanks, guards in uniforms, guards in button-down shirts and guards pretending to be volunteers. I’m pretty sure that, in the running for Olympic slogan with “We are ready,” organizers also considered “Beijing: We are NOT f*cking around.” The games, from a security standpoint, were a huge success. They were safe and terror free. Given the political scene at the moment, I feel that this is a huge accomplishment.

Despite the dark pall cast by problems, I must remember that my job was to serve spectators, who came find me when they were unhappy, lost or needed to express complaints. I really think the vast majority of spectators had a positive experience, and that these were successful Games. I am proud to have been a tiny part of it, to have worked together with my colleagues to bring success and the Olympic spirit to this international competition in this great city.

Post Games, Beijing is still televising great moments and the ever-present medal count. The city is putting the final touches on Paralympics preparations, and a new coat of paint on Tien’anmen. Kids are back in school and the collective breath has been exhaled. Everyone seems to be wearing the same orange-and-silver sneakers (including me) and some people haven’t stopped wearing their identification card. I think the Olympics will fade away slowly with the blue sky. People predict a return to normalcy but, having never lived in Beijing during a non-Olympics time, I am unsure of what this will be like. Really, what is “normal” in the world’s fastest growing economy?

Posted by ucpegasus 20:03 Archived in China Comments (0)

Volunteering for the Olympics

In which a volunteer's smile is Beijing's best business card.

29 °C

Post-vacation has been a rather exhausting whirlwind of all things Olympics. We moved into a friend’s apartment in the city to be closer to the action, to experience big city life for a month, and to decrease the length of our commute to our venues (by a considerable amount of time and distance). The apartment is near Jishuitan, which is a busy area with a huge bus stop where the longer distance buses to Changping originate, and features a subway station, lots of apartments, shopping center, and back alleys leading to Houhai, a beautiful lake area surrounded by shops and fancy restaurants.

The apartment itself is a small and fairly typical one: two bedrooms, tiny kitchen, living room, bathroom (actually a glorified showoilet), and little sunroom for hanging laundry. We have a Chinese roommate, another friend of Aaron’s colleague from whom we rented the apartment. She’s called (and this is one of the times when I really must translate directly from Chinese, because what people are named and what they are called is often very different!) Xiao Sun (Little Sun, Sun being her family name). She just graduated from University and has returned from her final year which was spent abroad in Russia. She’s busy relaxing, studying German, and thinking about what kind of job would both please her parents and provide an appropriate pool of potential husbands. She’s quite fun, and a great addition to our summer!

She’s been helping me choose a Chinese name. When I meet people here, a common first question is, “Do you have a Chinese name?” Most Chinese university students, young adults, and people working with foreigners have English names. I’ve wanted a Chinese name for some time, but the right one hadn’t come to me. Xiao Sun helped me to choose 莲 (Lian) which means Lotus, because I both love water plants and eating lotus root. She decided that the sound “Xi” would be a good partner with “Lian” especially since “Lianxi” together is a homophone for the word “precious.” (I hope you are beginning to see the complexities of choosing a name in Chinese – there’s always a literal meaning, homophonic meanings, and nuanced meanings that could give the name a positive or negative connotation…). For the “Xi” sound, I have narrowed it down to several characters: 曦 which means “daylight” but is very complex to write, 凞 which means “bright,” and 溪 which means “stream.” Any thoughts?

Training for Olympic volunteers began on August 1st (for me, anyway – many of the college student volunteers have been at this since school ended in July), with a get-together at our venues, where I listened to introductory speeches in Chinese, and then stood with the other members of my shift at our posts. I am a ticket checker at the west gate of the Ying Dong Natatorium where the water polo and swimming portion of the modern pentathlon are held. On day one, I learned to use a hole punch, and spent hours making practice holes in practice tickets, and practiced standing around doing nothing with my colleagues. The people I work with are college students from Beijing Normal University. Most of them are chemistry majors! Also rounding out our team is one lady who works as a metallurgist doing research on steel and other alloys, a high school student who has just returned from a year studying in Massachusetts, and a weird and horribly annoying American named Brad who is here studying Kung Fu. The college students are wonderful – they have a good grasp of English, and are friendly and accommodating, always translating for me, and making everyone feel welcome. It is a warm and enjoyable team on which to work!!

Day two was a foreign volunteers’ training at a fancy hotel. We had an Olympics Chinese “class” in which I learned nothing except that the teacher was very apologetic for being inept. Then, we sat through an absolutely infuriating lecture by a college-aged French guy entitled “How to Work with Chinese Volunteers.” In his lecture, he stereotyped egregiously in an “Us vs. Them” fashion. “Foreign volunteers are…” and “Chinese volunteers are…” The idea that I had any more in common with the foreign volunteers in the room, who are probably from about 50 different countries, than with the Chinese volunteers was laughable, and the speaker’s portrayal of “what Chinese people are like” was offensive to most people in the room. Following this entertainment we had a buffet lunch, and then a lecture by a Canadian who has been a two-time torch-bearer and volunteer, and is a performing artist in China. He was quite dramatic and strange and very into himself. At this point, the training ceased to be about the volunteers and turned into a media circus. Never had I been in such a situation – there were about 150 of us, and at least that many members of the media, including dozens of video cameras. It was obnoxious. After the volunteer finished speaking (and singing and playing the guitar) the organizer of the training turned the media on us, telling them to interview us! I went and hid. Then, we watched an hour of emergency training (in Chinese) as the media video taped and looked on. 90% of my job is to look foreign, and that day to look foreign on national television.

August 3 through 7 was spent at my venue, continuing to train in the technical aspects of using a hole punch. Most of our time was spent standing around. I finally got my uniform, sponsored by Adidas: a pair of silver and orange sneakers, gray zip-off pants (two pairs), socks (three pairs), blue cloud-swirled polo shirt with “Beijing 2008” on the back (three), a bucket hat, sunglasses, a clear plastic raincoat, a warm-up jacket, and a huge ID featuring my picture in two places. It’s a pretty cool get-up.

August 8 brought the opening ceremony. When I arrived in China last August, the country had just celebrated one year to go before the Games. What a thrill it was to watch the days (and hours, minutes and seconds) count down on giant clocks around the city. The opening ceremony was spectacular – designed by a famous Chinese movie director. I loved the drummers at the beginning, the scroll theme that reappeared throughout the show (including the giant canvas with the mountains and sun, which was later colored by school children, then finished by the athletes themselves as they entered walking through giant inkpads and then onto the canvas). The effect of the lightbulb-covered men in neon green suits who eventually built a model of the Bird’s Nest using their bodies was quite neat. I was utterly amazed when the final torch-bearer, instead of running forward, rose into the air to make a final lap of the stadium suspended above the spectators just inside the rim of the Nest. The giant torch on the inside edge of the National Stadium can be seen from my post outside my venue, orange against the currently grim, grey sky.

At the end of the performance, the spectacular fireworks were so huge, I could see their very tops from my apartment, miles away!! The booms of both the Olympic area fireworks and those at the city’s center could be heard clearly from my living room. When red fireworks were launched, the sky turned red; blue fireworks turned the whole sky blue.

I know that Beijing has been waiting a long time, and planning carefully for several years for their turn to host these great Games, and the start of the Olympics did not disappoint me! I only wish I could have attended in person!

August 10 marked the opening day of water polo at my venue. I worked an afternoon shift from 1:30 pm until 6:30, punching tickets. I had been feeling useless because of my lack of Chinese skills, but today learned that my foreign self is a benefit to the team. Foreign tourists tend to be much more outgoing (at least in front of me!) than Chinese, and often stopped to chat. I talked to flag-cape-wearing Americans singing songs, Brazilian guys who were five hours early for their game, a Chinese lady who had studied in the Netherlands and was curious about how I came to China, and lots and lots and lots of people who needed directions. It seemed like many foreigners didn’t exercise the patience necessary to have a conversation in English with my Chinese colleagues, or just assumed they didn’t speak English. Most immediately gravitated towards me. Late afternoon it started pouring until rivers and floods ran by our ticked-checking tent, and drove everyone inside (decreasing my people-watching – not as fun!). I’m looking forward to spending the next three weeks punching tickets, answering spectators’ questions and chatting with fun new people! This is definitely the best possible was I could have spent my summer!

Today brought some disappointment – the manners and actions of some foreigners have been unacceptable. Some Hungarian fans without tickets bullied their way past some of my colleagues, using their size and the language barrier to their advantage. Unfortunately, I wasn’t nearby and couldn’t help them. Later, one tried to do the same to me, begging and cajoling and physically moving closer and closer until his chest was right in my face. I didn’t budge, but looked up at him and said (in a firm voice that one might use when training a dog, and of which mom would be proud), “You do not have a ticket for this event. You can not go in.” He bugged off, which is good, because calling security would have been my next move. I feel so bad for my colleagues who seem to be intimidated by some of the spectators, and often can’t clearly communicate with them. Incidentally, yesterday, I saw what may have been the same Hungarians shove their way past the security check going into the subway, and refuse to put their bags through the x-ray machine. So, foreigners, please remember that your words and actions when you travel shape what others think of all of your countrymen!! I really can’t tolerate complaints about how “The Chinese are so…[insert any undesirable adjective here]” when some tourists don’t make an effort to understand how very different this country is than much of the “Western world” and act obnoxiously in public. And to all the whiney Americans, I’m sorry you didn’t realize that Beijing is a big city, that no one would offer to take you around in a golf cart, and that venue seats would be sized to fit the rear end that you would have if you ate only rice and vegetables every day. Put on some sneakers, get some exercise and deal with it.

Regardless of the bad behavior of some, things are running fairly smoothly, and I’m very happy to be a part of the Games!

Posted by ucpegasus 06:25 Archived in China Comments (1)

Summer Vacation!

In which we travel by bus, subway, taxi, train, boat, bus, bus, train, bus, and plane.

sunny 31 °C

Please note that this entry (which is very long) is followed by another new entry... I expect that only my own mother will make it all the way through this saga (but thanks for reading)!

As we were rolling along in a hard seat car of a train to Zhangjiajie for six hours, I decided that those several thousand moments were the perfect ones to reflect upon and lay down on paper the events and details of our travels so far (and type later, so I won’t forget any details).

On Saturday, at 2 pm (after finding out that Olympics training did, after all, conflict with our travel plans, but then deciding to go ahead with ten days of vacation and to forgo one day of training), Aaron and I left our apartment with our packs and bag of food, picked up our train tickets to Chongqing at the travel agent (for a mere 20RMB per ticket, someone else will wait in line for you!!) and set off for the Beijing West train station, via bus, subway and then taxi. After a mediocre train station area bowl of noodles, we embarked on our 35 hour train journey in luxury – soft sleeper.

Having ridden hard seat (12 hours to Xi’an), hard sleeper and soft seat (to and from Haerbin, respectively), Aaron and I were keen to try soft sleeper – even at a price nearly equal to that of flying. Hard sleeper has three-sided compartments each containing six bunks, stacked three high. Soft sleeper boasts four-bunk compartments with a sliding door – better to block out smoke and noise from the hall.

We passed our time reading (I devoured Catcher in the Rye in half a day), napping, snacking, looking out the window and chatting with our compartment mate. As we progressed south, the landscape became greener and wetter, as we passed fields and then rice paddies and water buffalos soaking in the mud. Towards the end of the second day, the landscape became mountainous and we spend much of our time thundering through tunnels underground. Two nights later, first thing in the morning (and surprisingly well-rested!), we arrived in Chongqing.

A chatty and enthusiastic female cab driver brought us from the train station to a travel agency where we began our search for tickets to a boat cruise down the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang – Long River). After much price comparison between at least six cruise agencies (there were dozens!), we bought tickets for a two night/two day cruise on a Chinese-owned boat, including tickets to all available “tourist destinations” for 1100RMB each, to depart at 4 pm.

As we had quite a lot of time to kill, we found breakfast (spicy, delicious pork wontons in broth) on the street, and then strolled the waterfront, watching the coffee with cream-colored water of the Yangtze swirl and blend with the dark green water of the Jialing River. Men with nets strung between the split ends of bamboo poles waded, seining for fish, and kids with their pant legs rolled up splashed in the shallow water.

Food was not included in the cruise (just like on the train), so we stopped by Carrefour (a popular French grocery store chain) to buy bread, real cheese (yay for Edam!), fruit, tomatoes, crackers, cookies and milk boxes for the trip.

We toured the Arhat temple in downtown Chongqing. It is nestled among the skyscrapers near the fancy name-brand center of the city. The juxtaposition of Starbucks, Cartier and designer clothes with the low, ancient buildings of the temple was striking. But inside the temple, the surrounding city disappeared behind billowing clouds of incense and candle smoke. It was the busiest temple I’ve visited – old ladies filled the halls, chatting, praying, reading Buddhist writings and, most often, napping. Hundreds of people filled the space, bowing three times to their Buddha, burning candles, touching carvings for good luck.

Back at the travel agency, we boarded a bus to bypass the first third of the length of the Yangtze River trip between Chongqing and Yichang. The first part is industrial and densely settled – not what we wanted to watch from a boat for a whole day. About three and a half hours later (including two hours of loud Chinese pop music and at least an hour of a very violent movie punctuated by repetitive annoying commercials and many yelled cell phone conversations) we arrived in Wanzhou and boarded the boat.

Now, we had splurged on first class to have a room and a bathroom of our own, and I suppose I had elevated my expectations – always a dangerous thing! Our room on the HMS Dismal was very small, with two cot sized beds, a tv, a small desk and a smelly shoilet. We did, however, have our own little balcony and no roommates. Second class rooms were identical, but with two sets of bunk beds! We settled in, turned down a very pushy offer from a very nasty, unpleasant attendant for a pass for 50RMB to an exclusive viewing deck with a 360 degree view (I hate these tricks – so many things here are unexpectedly extra – but in this case, the view was not 360 degrees, nor was it any better than anywhere else on the boat!), and got ready for bed, as the boat pulled away from the dock at 9 pm. At 11 pm, I was nearly asleep, and we were informed that we would be arriving at the first tourist attraction at 11:30 pm!! We changed back into our clothes for a dark walk up to the temple. All along the way were souvenir vendors selling fans, “jade” Maoephanalia, and food. The boat did have a small and overpriced restaurant, but most people, in addition to their snacks and noodle bowls, bought eggs, fried rice, fish on a stick and other delicious eats from these ubiquitous vendors each time we stopped. We retired after 1 am.

At 5 am, an announcement awoke us to view the first of the Three Gorges as it passed by, imposing, sandy, ruddy and black jagged rock walls rising up steeply, topped by green trees and shrubs. Along our river route, markers denoted 175 meters – the height above sea level to which the river would rise by next year. Between the current water level of about 145 meters and about 160 meters was nearly devoid of vegetation – 160 meters seemed to be the historic water level. Above that, in all areas except the sheer walls of the gorges, vegetation thrived on every surface. Farms clung to the hillsides, growing corn, rice and a plethora of other vegetables in huge patchwork gardens each surrounding a little house. Some of the garden plots seemed impossibly vertical. Even though the plants looked green and happy, I could not imagine how the farmers must travel to and from their plots, especially to pick and carry out a harvest! Between the current water level and 175 meters stood many abandoned buildings, but no abandoned farmland, yet.

The hillsides were dotted with big signboards each bearing a character, instructing us to treat the river kindly for our children, and denoting special places, such as the Sino-Japanese Friendship Forest. Also on the hillsides along the river, and also along the train tracks on our long train trip to Chongqing, were many, many little shrines that were built into the hillsides. They looked like tiny mausoleums, possibly resting places for the ashes of deceased family members. Each was a little different with beautiful stonework around the roof and door.

At 8 am, and already quite tired, we boarded a smaller boat for a visit to the Little Three Gorges along a tributary to the Yangtze. These gorges were smaller in height but the river was narrower, giving amore awe-inspiring feel, replete with yellow monkeys and waterfall after waterfall. Unfortunately, the several hours on this boat were narrated over a loudspeaker at earsplitting volume, which was infuriating. It was also raining, which necessitated at least some time spent sitting indoors near a speaker. Late morning, we switched to yet smaller boats – wooden with woven grass mats as a sun canopy - to tour the Little Little Three Gorges! These were yet narrower, and lined with caves and waterfalls. Historically, these boats would have been propelled through the water by a boatman using a pole, but were now sent briskly down the river by a 45 horsepower motor operated by a man in a traditional woven hat and sunshield for his back. I thoroughly enjoyed this side trip – it was quieter, we rode closer to the water and through the spray of the waterfalls, and nearer to the riverbanks. I longed for my kayak and about a week alone on this part of the river! We returned to the medium-sized boat amid blaring loudspeakers trying to sell us commemorative DVDs and stamp sets of our Little Three Gorges Cruise.

Aboard our cruise ship, we napped and watched the second gorge drift past, as hours of Chinese emo-pop played over the ships speakers. At 7 pm after a feast of bread, cheese and tomatoes, we marched up a long flight of stairs to ruins of a temple – a side trip that left us scratching our heads, but did yield a second dinner of fried noodles, fried rice and little fried potatoes accompanied by some cold beer on the hillside above the river. We then took in a stage show of singing and dancing by a minority group, and return to the boat, which resumed its travels down the river the next morning.

The next morning, we docked again, and transferred into long, narrow, colorfully painted dragon boats (also powered by motors!) and zoomed down another tributary where we disembarked and walked on a floating path deep into a narrow gorge with high sides, dripping with water and vegetation. Then, we hiked up staircase after staircase along the edge of one gorge to look down on the water below. At first, it was infuriatingly noisy – people yelling, attempting repeatedly to get the gorge to echo, blowing the emergency whistles on their lifejackets, jostling along the path. Aaron and I took our time until we were blissfully last and could look out over the gorge in relative solitude, enjoy the plants, rock formations and dripping water, and imagine how peaceful it must be after all the tourists leave.

As we pulled away in our dragon boats, we noticed that this rather natural area was graced by a giant billboard for SNOW beer…

We returned to the ship for the third gorge (longer and wider still), and then docked a final time. We boarded buses to be transferred to the Three Gorges Dam. There, we transferred to yet another bus for the Dam Tour. (I wished that Dad had been there, both to enjoy the engineering marvel that is the Three Gorges Dam [note: NOT enough concrete to alter the rotation of the earth!!] and to make Dam Jokes. Aaron merely rolls his eyes at Dam Jokes. I think they are Dam Funny.) The dam itself is massive – holding many billions of cubic meters of water, providing the power of about 15 nuclear power plants and flood control for the entire river valley. Security was very tight, perhaps due to past problems with disgruntled, displaced farmers or activist groups. We were searched, metal detected, and not allowed near the dam itself at all, viewing only from several vantage points around the property. To the designers’ credit, there were several park areas with trees, paths and birds, and a park to memorialize the cultural relics, ancient trees and rocks disturbed during construction.

I was really, absolutely tired of being on a tour at this point, and at being in a constant state of transit. I needed a break from the Chinese idea of tourism, some quiet, and a good meal. My feelings on our Yangtze River tour experience, given what we paid for it, was that it wasn’t a bad deal. The beauty of the Three Gorges surrounded us, but so did hundreds of people and deafening, constant noise. The service was less than professional, and the surroundings distinctly not first class. We walked, rode and bussed everywhere with pushy, loud crowds led by guides who constantly used megaphones and loudspeakers. It was often frustrating. If you can afford a foreign or joint-venture owned cruise (or better ye, a private kayak tour, which may not even exist), do it – for the peace and quiet, ability to understand your guides (or to not have any!), clean sheets and better service. I don’t regret going the way we did – it builds character and leaves more than one memorable impression!

After the Dam Tour, we bussed one hour to the very small city of Yichang, which is all but passed over by the Lonely Planet. We first visited the train and bus stations, hoping to get a ticket out and on to Zhangjiajie for the next day, but were offered standing room only. We bought tickets for two days later, found a lovely cheap hotel, and set off for dinner.

Yichang deserves more space in a guide book. Though lacking tourist attractions (and probably night life, but this is not something I ever consider when assessing a place!), people were genuinely nice – friendly, honest, smiling, very rarely yelling hello or trying to sell us anything. We ate at a tiny place on a side street where we had wild chicken hotpot – a whole chicken, chopped (bone-in) with wintermelon and green onions in a very spicy broth of chilis, chili oil, garlic, ginger, star anise and cinnamon. The pot is placed on a burner that holds a cake of solid fuel to keep the dish bubbling at your table. When it was first lit (by our waiter who claimed to by 17, but looked about 11!) a half-dozen little roaches came scrambling out. He nonchalantly brushed them to the ground! We added tofu, rice noodles and a delicious leafy green vegetable to our stew and sat for several hours cooking, eating from the pot, and drinking a southern beer called Chero, which provided a nice change from Yanjing.

I love sitting in a street-side restaurant outside, eating delicious food cooked in a tiny kitchen, watching people – old men, women with cute babies, people on bicycles, families walking, little boys running - all pass by. In Yichang the people looked, but didn’t stare too much. If anything, they appeared to be a bit suspect of us foreigners! We sat eating and watching until it was dark.

The next day, we had planned to hire a car to take us into the countryside for a hike, and some much-needed relaxation from people, noise and tourist attractions. But, as with the past four days, it was raining. So we ate some spicy noodles, steamed bread and soymilk, and waited out the rain at an internet café. After lunch, we set off to the farmland surrounding Yichang. We spent the drizzly afternoon strolling along a narrow road, past small cornfields in fruit (big fat ears!), juzi and youzi (tangerine and pomelos?) trees, squash vines in bright orange-yellow flower, banana trees, and many, man brick, concrete and tile homes that were surprisingly large for those of farmers. Many had very old looking, packed-mud barns beside them. Aaron said that in Guilin, farmers often use the first floor of their homes to store produce before it is sold, and that may have been the case here, but nothing was being harvested at the time.

Our walk was relaxing and peaceful. The air was warm enough to dry us at the same rate the rain fell. The birds sang, the air was full of huge black swallowtail butterflies and rust-colored dragonflies, and sunflowers and bushes with pink spherical blossoms were alive with bees.

We returned, satisfied, to our hotel, and then to a fancier dinner nearby. This restaurant had a picture menu with English translations, which always gives the chance to try something new. The English translations, however, were character-for-character, straight from an online service. This was especially evident in the name of the very first dish (a plate of assorted sliced cold meats and vegetables, called “Internet Translation.” Oops!

We had stir fried bamboo shoots with beautiful light brown mushrooms, a beef dish with peppers, garlic and ginger in a delicious savory brown sauce and decadent fried rolls made of some bread-like outside filled with a mashed sweet potato. This meal was followed by me collapsing on our hotel room bed of food coma.

Our final morning in Yichang (a great place to relax and catch your breath during a vacation when you are constantly on the move!) we ate steamed pastries (wheat with red bean on the inside – yum!) and drank soymilk in the park, bought snacks for our upcoming adventures, and packed up. We ate yet another delicious meal (oh, how I love food!) at a street-side restaurant that featured an urn of pickled cabbage and hot peppers on the front counter. It was unlike sour kraut – sweeter and with a slight “bleu cheese” taste.

Then, on to the six hour train ride to Zhangjiajie, hard seat, surrounded by people standing, leaning, squatting, eating sunflower seeds, napping, chatting, smoking and spitting out the windows. It was sunny for the first time since leaving Beijing, with bits of blue sky peaking out from behind the clouds. The cicadas, plus the sound of the train wheels on the rails and the whistle blasts and people talking above all that noise were deafening, but the sight of water buffalos enjoying their water holes in the rice paddies surrounding small villages made the time pass quickly.

We arrived in the small (ugly, noisy) city of Zhangjiajie, and were immediately accosted by the usual assortment of touts with illegal taxis and travel planning services. One particularly persistent young man, who used his grasp of English to his advantage, tried to get us to take his friend’s minibus to the downtown, actually got on the public bus that we took, and talked our ears off about taking his friend’s minibus to the Geopark (public ones had stopped running by that time (5:00 pm!) he said, and were dangerous, anyway!), that you needed a guide, that he could be our guide, and so forth. Finally, I was tired of being nice, and informed him that I never hired anyone who approached me – only the other way around. “But, I’m just giving you information!” he said. Yes, incorrect information. He followed us from the bus depot downtown, several blocks, to the bus stop for the buses out to the Geopark, harassing us all the way. I tried my patented “body block” (enhanced by a large backpack, I thought), tried ignoring him, and finally had some strong words to the effect of “We do NOT need you, leave us alone immediately.” He said, “Well, you don’t need to get angry and yell!” which I was not. Eventually, with lots of prompting from us (and, I believe, a reference to the police, whom I would have called long ago had I been alone!) he wandered away.

We took the bus for a bumpy one hour ride away from the city towards Wulingyuan, the site of the UNESCO Natural Heritage Geopark. Tiny towns and rice paddies came into view, with lush vegetation and beautiful mountains surrounding us. After what felt like days of travel (train, bus, boat, bus, train, bus…) we had finally attained quiet(er), more natural surroundings!

The next morning, we obtained our tickets (245RMB per person, yikes!) to the park, and took a cable car ride (and additional 50RMB, yikes again!) up the mountain (and spotted the insistent tout from the day before accompanying some unsuspecting family! We later found out that it is very common for groups as small as two people to hire a guide!). The majority of the land area of the park lies as a valley within a ring of mountains. We embarked on yet another bus ride that took us on a scenic loop around the park. Even from the bus, the scenery was spectacular – green, diverse vegetation, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, little homes and farms that remain from before the area became a park. We found a little guest house, run by a farming family, in a quiet (nearly tourist-free!) part of the park. For 80RMB per night, we had a large room and private bathroom in one of a collection of little buildings inhabited by the extended family, perched on the side of the hill. In front of the complex was a large garden, where the owners grew corn, long beans, eggplant, cabbage and many other vegetables. Overlooking the garden was a cement patio, complete with chairs in which to relax, as you gazed over the garden and onwards to the green expanse of the park and the lovely, clear blue sky. In the mornings and evenings we sat, watched the man work in the garden, watched the women wash clothes by hand and wash vegetables under the tap outside. While we were there, the grandparents came back from town with a big sack full of rice noodles. They hung these on the clothesline to finish drying. The grandmother was absolutely always doing something: washing dishes, clothes, rice, vegetables, peeling, chopping, sorting through dried mushrooms or corn. When Aaron told her how hard working he thought she was, she said, “I’m just trying to clean up around here a little!!” Her husband spent much of his time smoking, gazing out over the park, and sitting quietly, until she squawked for him to come help her with something!

The man and women who spent much of their time running the guest house (I assume one was the child of the older people) also cooked meals for guests, using vegetables from their garden. Our first night, we had sautéed cabbage and delicious long beans, and a plate of preserved pork (possibly cured under cold water?!) with two kinds of mushrooms. (After listening to a list of food available that night, I asked “What beans?” The man held up a handful of foot and a half-long long beans with an enormous grin, and said “Theeeese beans!”) The dinner was delectable.

For two days, we hiked around the park. The majority of really fantastic scenery can best be viewed from a walkway along the inside of one of the mountains, which overlooks the area with the greatest density of rock columns. Located here, also, is the “World’s First Bridge,” a rock formation in the shape of an arch rising high above the forest floor. The rock formations (“karst upthrusts” says the Lonely Planet – Aaron seemed not to appreciate my persistent use of the phrase “karst upthrusts.” Say it out loud. It’s fun.) are striking and beautiful, and include free-standing columns and “screens” of rock layering back into the distance. The forest floor is densely vegetated, as are the tops and some sides of the rock columns. Having been rainy the days before we arrived, many of the rocks were dripping with water.

The park, like most “natural” areas in China, has been thoroughly engineered for tourism. Concrete walkways and stairs make accessible anything remotely worth looking at. Chinese tourists don shiny new sneakers, bandanas and sunhats and, carrying parasols, flock to the overlooks to pose for photos. Many places in the park were very, very crowded with noisy tour groups led by megaphone-announcing guides. Smoking was prohibited in the park and trashcans were placed about every 50 feet, but still, people littered. Most people seemed to have come from areas of the country where foreigners were non-existant, and we were constantly at the receiving end of many a “hellooooo” and long pointed stares and double takes. All these things, I suppose, must be endured to enjoy the beauty of travel in China!!

On the second day, we chose a path (more concrete stairs) that brought us far from the “recommended tourist route” down the steep inner mountainside to the forest floor. We hiked down, down, down amidst a wonderful array of plants and trees, little lizards, and really lovely and varied insects. One beetle with red wings had a metallic blue body and a slow, noisy way of flying. I think he was as surprised of his ability to fly as we were! At our lowest elevation, we began to follow a pretty river to a little village, where we sat on someone’s porch and ate our lunch. Our way back up took us nearly to our previous elevation, all the way back down, and then back up to the rim of the mountain park. Some indication of elevation or topography on the park map would have been useful!

Our last day took us on a hike (with our backpacks!) down the mountain, past a “monkey garden” (really, a big cage with several very cute monkeys) back to the town of Wulingyuan. Mom, does this sound like the botanically diverse place you saw on television?

Back in town, we visited a night market for dinner. These restaurants have no menu, but set out many bins of vegetables, tanks of aquatic animals (fish, eels, snails, crawfish, frogs, turtles) and cages of animals (rabbits, snakes, chickens, ducks, and what looked to me like a nutria!). You choose your ingredients, and your meal is (killed and) cooked to your taste. We were a little turned off by the meat (nothing live appealed to us, and we certainly couldn’t eat a whole chicken between the two of us – believe me, we’ve tried), and when we arrived, the cook was violently hacking up a pig skull. We ordered plates of two vegetables I had never seen before: some green flower buds, and a purple vegetable that may have been large leaf buds. Both were sautéed with garlic and hot green peppers and were delicious with lots of beer! The family sat down to eat while we were eating and sent us some of their dinner: hot pot of large, white floppy mushrooms and pig’s head pieces in a delicious gravy of chili oil, star anise, garlic and cinnamon stick. Wow, it was good!

Our last full day in Wulingyuan, we took a bus to a river for a leisurely rafting trip. The river is rather slow-moving with widely spaced and gentle rapids, and we sat contentedly, with only two other passengers, while our old guide maneuvered the raft, encouraged us to splash one another, and sang us songs from his heritage. The river scenery was lovely – small gorges, pebble beaches and little sandbars inhabited by white wading birds. Again, I wished for at least a week and a kayak – and perhaps a trash bag to clean up the riverbanks. The ride back took us past miles of rice paddies and small, dusty villages.

The next day, after a visit to a huge cave (complete with miles of walkway, colored lights illuminating the imaginatively named rock formations – which were spectacular - and about a billion other visitors following megaphone wielding guides) we headed to the airport for our two hour flight home.

Be sure to see photos online on my Picasa site!

Posted by ucpegasus 04:53 Archived in China Comments (3)

"Police College"

In which we educate, and are educated by, Changping's finest.

sunny 26 °C

Months ago, Aaron was hired by the Changping Police Department to teach an Olympics English course. They postponed the class several times, until finally, just after the school year ended, they gave him a call to inform him of classes starting…in two days. The class was to be held for two weeks, three days each week, at a hot springs resort north of Changping. The police paid Aaron well, and agreed to put us both up in the hotel, including our meals. We planned frantically for the day preceding the class, and set off for the resort early Monday afternoon.

The class consisted of 25 mostly quite young police officers. They had been selected based on their status as college graduates (many from the university at which Aaron teaches!) and their level of English. We covered vocabulary that may be of use during the Olympics (venue names, giving directions, problems, emergencies and other needs of a foreign tourist), role played, challenged them with scenarios, played games, and held discussions. What a fun bunch of people! They were all quite curious about life in the US and eager to know more about us. Their English was surprisingly good; we had to constantly strive to make the content of the class more challenging.

During the first week, we spent our mornings planning, and our afternoons and evenings teaching. During the second week, with a new class of 25 officers, we repeated our lessons, and relaxed in the mornings. The hotel was very fancy: luxurious beds, a huge bathroom, an in-room computer. The prices were astronomically high: higher than those I’d expect to see at a similar resort in the US! Massages started at about 350 RMB for an hour, and entrance to the hot pools for three hours was almost 200 RMB! The police officers couldn’t afford cigarettes. Fortunately, all our meals were included: an enormous breakfast buffet, and family-style lunch and dinner in a Hangzhou-style restaurant. It was a wonderful way to try new food: pig’s ear (yuck – I’m not a big cartilage fan), lily pad soup, delicious beef, and a variety of new vegetables I had never had.

The highlight of the week was a game that morphed into “Cops and Robbers.” We had intended to practice giving directions in English by having one officer verbally guide a blindfolded officer through a maze of chairs. However, the game was declared “boring” and it was suggested that two pairs participate: one officer to verbally guide a blind-folded police officer, and another to guide a blind-folded “robber” until the police caught the robber. It was a hilarious game to watch, as the cop often came so close to the police without knowing it, and everyone repeatedly walked into chairs and tables when misdirected by their guides. Having been initially intimidated by the thought of working for six days in a room full of uniformed officers, I was so relieved to find them a young and fun bunch, eager to learn and practice their English, and to have discussions with their teachers and one another.

I learned much during the two weeks. Provincial police officers in China do not carry weapons, except when then make a dangerous arrest, or patrol on foot at night. Even then, only one in a pair will carry a gun. When asked, they unanimously said that they wouldn’t carry a gun as a part of their daily work even if they could, as the responsibility would be too great. Besides, gun ownership in China is illegal, even for hunting, and illegal gun ownership is quite rare. Violent crime is very low here, and Beijing seems to me a safer place than most American cities. The most dangerous part of walking alone at night, they say, is falling into an open manhole!

We also discussed education in China, which is the very system that propelled many of the officers into their current career, whether or not they had ever aspired to be police officers. The few female officers said they didn’t really like their jobs, but their high school exit exam scores were such that they attended a university with a law program (as law or sometimes English majors) and then found work as police officers. The job doesn’t pay well and, unlike in the US, police officers in China are viewed as “regular” people, not heroes or of any elevated status for their dangerous work.

We talked about violence in video games and movies, and their impact on society, about differences between the US and China regarding education, tradition, and laws. American movies have given the impression to many of our students that a police officer can shoot at will, and that violence is condoned by the police and society. Listening to their thoughts and feelings about their jobs and social issues was fascinating, especially a debate on legalizing gun ownership.

It is wonderful to have new friends, especially police officers, and I wish them luck as they patrol during the road cycling and triathlon events! I am so impressed by the language skills of these officers - I expect visitors to Beijing to be wowed by the number of friendly English-speaking officers on the street - I doubt that any city in the US boasts more than one or two Chinese-speaking police officers! Additionally, I was impressed by their manners. They treated their teachers very well, during class and at meals. Hopefully, the Changping Police keep us in mind for future English classes!

Posted by ucpegasus 04:48 Archived in China Comments (1)

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