A Travellerspoint blog

Day 1, evening

In which I am ever so thankful for phone calls from my mom and friends!!

Late afternoon, 2 June
I now have company. Two retired teachers and two recent high school graduates in China on tour have been quarantined. All were sitting within a few rows of me on the plane. Ironically, I had switched seats with a girl when we boarded so that she could sit next to her friend. Her row wasn’t quarantined.

I feel especially bad for my fellow quarantees. They’re here for just a week, and will spend it all in the not-so-charming confines of the Yanxiang Hotel. I hope they have trip insurance… One advantage I have is experience living in China. Things that would have sent me into a tizzy two years ago now just make me smile. I also speak enough Chinese to facilitate processes that are difficult in English for our handlers. This must be a baffling and maddening experience for tourists on vacation. I think that, if I must be quarantined (must I?) that I am in the best possible position: I’m still getting paid, and I’m only missing out on work, not the trip of a lifetime.

I called American citizen services at the American Embassy just to file a report with an officer. They were incredibly nice on the phone, but were quite straightforward that there was really nothing they could do to change the terms of the quarantine.

Evening, 2 June
The quarantees continue to trickle in. And they continue to complain. Loudly. In the hall. Yes, we all know this sucks. No, you can’t do anything about it. And no, I do not know what it is that they served you for dinner. A masked man delivered Snickers bars and laundry soap, yay! I’m off to take a bath for the first time in two years…ahhh, the beauty of a bathtub.

A cover band is playing Brown Eyed Girl and Sweet Home Alabama outside my window (bringing the city a taste of tired Americana?), and we're all on "flower watch." Every time a masked person wheels more flower arrangements down the hall, new inmates arrive. I'm tired of meeting people for the night, and am going to turn in with a book.

Posted by ucpegasus 06:32 Archived in China Comments (0)


In which my "vacation" is extended, on the government's dime.

These are the stories you’ll tell your children. These are the things you’ll remember. These are the times that elevate “travel” to “adventure.” The unexpected, unplanned events of life are the gilt accents on a historic Beijing building: life is already fascinating but has just been upgraded to spectacular.

Day one of quarantine in Beijing. Here is the story so far:

After a week home to visit my family and (successfully!) interview for several teaching positions in the Northeast, I boarded a jet back to Beijing. The 777 was full: I met a group of high school girls and their chaperones headed to volunteer at an orphanage north of the city, a 17-year-old girl staying in the city for two months to model, and an older gentleman on his way to meet a prospective wife. After enduring the 14-hour ride, including a nauseating hour of heavy turbulence, we landed in the north capitol. A quarantine and inspection officer boarded the plane and used an infrared body head gun to take the temperature of each passenger before giving the all-clear signal. We deplaned, filed through inspection, customs and immigration, and luggage claim before being released into the stuffy Beijing air.

I went into work early this morning, eager to catch up on my duties and plan lessons for the week. Already having missed five days of class, I was ready to get things back on track and make some progress. At about 10:30 am, my phone rang:

(In Chinese): “Is this Katie?” “Yes,” I answered. “Do you speak Chinese?” the voice inquired. “A little; do you speak English?” “No, can you get someone who speaks Chinese?” I found our poor secretary, Nancy, who I am sure is yoked with these sorts of tasks continually. I handed her the phone. She listened, and relayed questions to me. “Where you on this flight?” she asked, writing down “CO89.” “Yes…” “Someone has…” she paused, and then wrote down “H1N1.” “Oh,” I sighed, “The swine flu.” “Someone will come get you soon. Pack for maybe seven days. They will take you to the hospital.” I mumbled back, “Soon? Seven…days?”

After deplaning and going our separate ways, it was found that one passenger on lucky flight number 89 had been hospitalized with a confirmed case of H1N1. China, still wary about public epidemics (and for good reason!) is perpetually safe rather than sorry to the fullest extent of its ability (and, let me tell you, that ability does extend rather far!). I returned to my room, packed a bag and every shred of portable entertainment I could get my hands on, and waited.

Then the Tyvek ladies arrived. Clad in white from hood to bootie, gloved and masked, they entered my room with their questionnaire and the very patient school head of foreign affairs in tow. I listed everyone I’d had contact with that morning (go ahead, make your own list and marvel at it’s length!!), the extent of my contact, my route over the previous week, my trajectory from the U.S. to the Beijing airport and back to school and my habits over the previous 24 hours. Then the swab man arrived, and, after figuring out how to translate “Ahhh!” into English, shoved some q-tips down my gullet. Once I was masked and gloved, our team proceeded outside. After waiting the exact length of time required for my entire cohort of colleagues to parade past and inquire about the impending epidemic, an ambulance arrived and whisked me away, siren blaring. I highly recommend ambulance as a quick alternative for travel into the city. In just a half hour, we had reached our destination: the Yanxiang Hotel on Dongzhimen Wai.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a bevy of lab coat-clad medical professionals, the women in pink and the men in white. Forms were filled, my temperature was taken (normal), and the paparazzi recorded my every move from the back of the ambulance into the hotel. The hotel had been converted into a quarantine center. Bellhops had been replaced by lab-coated men. Receptionists had been replaced by lab-coated women. And clusters of lab-coated people stood around just in case the situation called for a cluster of lab-coated people.

(An aside: I think China looks at every misfortune as an opportunity for employment.)

Despite the lab coats, masks, gloves and scrub caps, the hotel employees acted as if I had just arrived at my vacation destination. I registered at the front desk, was wished a pleasant stay, and was taken upstairs to my accommodation. I inquired about the current number of patrons and was informed that I was the first. (Creepy horror movie premise!) One of the four bellhops presented me with a bouquet of roses and lilies and other gave me a plate of bananas, oranges and lychees. I selected my lunch from the menu (shrimp in black bean sauce with peppers, and fried rice) and was given a number to call in case I needed anything. And then I was left…alone.

And here I remain. In perhaps the most solitudinous solitude in the busy city of Beijing, in my little slice of isolation for the next seven days. My amenities include internet, TV with HBO and the National Geographic Channel, a mini-fridge with water and iced tea, books and DVDs graciously donated by my colleagues, a bathtub, three meals daily (the shrimp did not portend to greatness), a comfy bed and a kettle to boil water.

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

Zhengzhou and Shaolin Temple

In which one little girl leaves the provincial museum having spent more time staring at me than looking at the exhibits!

sunny 21 °C

Last weekend, Matt and I traveled to Zhengzhou and the Shaolin Temple in a much-needed weekend away. We took a soft-seat express train five hours south of Beijing to Henan Province. As soon as you leave city limits of Beijing, the landscape turns rural and remains flat. We passed through acres of crop fields dotted with brick shacks, some flocks of goats, and a great deal of flat, sandy nothingness. Approaching Zhengzhou, we crossed over the Yellow River and could see the tiny skyline of the city of 2 million. Train travel in China requires that, immediately upon arrival at your destination, you get back in line at a ticket counter to purchase your return tickets. After some great advice about a counter especially for foreigners (and mind you, this does not imply service in English, just that there is a shorter line, confusingly populated by Chinese-looking people, but a shorter line all the same), I managed to purchase return tickets and we got the heck outta the train station.

Zhengzhou is small and walkable. We headed to the town center, the Second of July Square, marked by a many-storied double-pagoda featuring huge clocks that rang and announced the hour. We checked into the Second of July Hotel, and went for a wander. (Note to self: Find out what happened on the Second of July!!) The city is packed with street life: food, vendors, hawkers, strollers, shoppers. One long avenue is designated as pedestrian only and features snack stands at convenient ten meter intervals along its length. Our first evening we spent wandering, in awe of the sheer number of stands selling soft serve ice cream. After walking (jostling our way through) through an intense food street and ascertaining that we mostly wanted to drink the local beer (as beer is a very local commodity in China; in Zhengzhou, they drink Kingstar for 2 (for the cheap stuff) and 3 RMB per bottle). We ate a lovely meal of marinated tofu, vegetables with shrimp and surimi, and deep fried, spicy not-beef. The not-beef, you see, was captioned on the menu using the character for beef. It looked and tasted like fish, or possibly frog. Post dinner, we wandered through back lanes and more food streets until we found an outdoor establishment, the kind with miniature tables and chairs, loud customers, several cats and dogs, and a steady flow of Kingstar. We splurged on a few bottles of the higher grade and enjoyed the absolutely perfect temperature of the evening.

Living in Beijing, I forget how cosmopolitan and modern the city really is. Zhengzhou, a mere 5-hour trip from Beijing, is nothing like the capital city. In our entire stay, aside from the Shaolin Temple, we saw three foreigners. Folks on the street were clearly curious, and several (including teenaged girls, usually the shyest group in Beijing!) ran up to shout “Hello!!”

The following morning, after a very early meal of the most beautiful jiaozi I have ever seen (for 3 RMB a steamer tray!), we set off for the long-distance bus station. After purchasing tickets to the venerable Shaolin Temple, we set off in a small bus across the countryside. About 45 minutes into our journey, as I was just drifting off for a nap (sleeping on public transportation is my most favorite pastime), a woman with a microphone clocked in for her shift. She had a voice like nails on a chalkboard and the microphone had reverb not rivaled by any KTV joint in the Middle Kingdom. Volume cranked up to max, she prattled on and on about the surrounding countryside, the history, the temple, and I do believe (and mind you, my Chinese is quite limited) about the prices of each food item and gift shop souvenir available for purchase at the Shaolin Temple. Every time she stopped for a breath (which was not nearly as often as I had thought humans required), I hoped she was done, but alas, her spiel took us nearly to our destination. And when she finished, another woman took her place. And then we arrived. At someplace that was NOT the Shaolin Temple. By giving a 45-minute oration, the tour guides (which I did not know was included in the ticket price, nor did I particularly want included in my bus ticket) probably thought that they were answering every question their guests could think to ask. But they did not plan on having The Foreigners on board. The passengers disembarked, and I began my questioning. It turns out that we would be making TWO stops on the way to the temple, one at the Songyang Academy, one of the oldest in China, and then at the Songyue Pagoda, China’s oldest made of brick (and thus, by classifying each edifice so specifically, each becomes the “[superlative]-est in China”). Matt and I looked around for a short time, and then boarded a different bus to expedite our travel to the temple.

The Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of kungfu, is a sprawling complex of buildings around the actual Temple. The temple is still in use by a small population of monks who must just absolutely abhor the hoards of tourists that descend on their beautiful serenity by the busload each day. Also present are phalanxes of youths in residence, there to learn the martial art. The surroundings are mountainous and forested; green and tranquil, full of singing birds, butterflies and other nature-y things not seen in Beijing. We took in part of a kungfu stage show by some very young and tiny performers, before hiking off to the temple itself. Similar to the Lama Temple in Beijing, a series of buildings on a north-south axis housed a great variety of Buddha and altars and incense burners. The reclining Buddha, my favorite, was in full form, along with that blue god I enjoy (please refer to Picasa photos). After a relatively brief wander through the massive crowd, we set out for the hillsides.

Along side the temple is located my favorite site in the complex: the Pagoda Forest. 246 brick pagodas of varying sizes and shapes, each containing the ashes of a monk, are scattered across a small area of hillside. Some are in great shape and are adorned with glazed tiles, while others are held up dangerously with tree branches. They were very photogenic.

The location features two cable car rides (a fairly ubiquitous item anywhere the topography allows) to two ridge tops. We embarked for the highest of the two, Oreos and water in hand. Once on the top, we were met with clean air, more trees than I’ve seen in the past many months, and a dramatic valley before us. The valley between the mountains and surrounding hillsides was viewable from a pathway around the inside rim of the peaks, somehow attached to the mountainside. This path meandered up and down with steep sets of stairs, warnings of rock-slides (one read, “Do not stay here too long!”) and extended Chinese families clad in totally inappropriate shoes. We did about ¾ of the circumnavigation under an azure sky, warm sun and beautiful breeze. Then, we caught the cable car down the mountain. The return bus trip to Zhengzhou featured no surprise stops or screeching orations.

Back in town, we wandered around for a restaurant, and ended up (thanks to my very limited ability to read and Matt’s uncanny ability to interpret) in a hot pot joint on the fourth floor of a shopping mall. The place was outfitted to look like a cave with the excellent addition of giant bamboo and mushrooms, all gaily painted. Alas, the place had no picture menu, and we were left with a hot pot standard: the tick-box menu. With the help of a very distracted parade of wait staff, we chose our soup, sauce (on the second try) and an agreeable assortment of vegetables. And then, a girl came over and asked me, in Chinese, if we spoke English. Turns out, it is her major, but she was afraid to assume we spoke English!! If only the hello’ers on the street would be of this mindset…

The following day, our last, we set off for the Henan Provincial Museum. Although housed in a unique building, it was mostly closed for renovation, leaving just a small exhibit of extraordinarily old bronze work and The Jade Mummy. I had seen pictures, perhaps in National Geographic, but didn’t know this archaeological treasure rested in Henan. The mummy was found encased in hundreds of jade rectangles, each with a hole at each corner, stitched together into some sort of armor. There is even a face plate with a spot for the nose, and gloves. The whole thing is astoundingly beautiful and in perfect condition.

On the way to the museum, we had an interesting encounter with a very nice taxi driver. We were chatting about visiting Zhengzhou and what we had seen and done so far. And then he asked if we had been to “Huang He.” I was stumped; I had no idea. “Yellow something, maybe?” I muttered to Matt. I pondered, and eventually told the cab driver that I couldn’t understand. He proceeded to say, “Huang He?” And then louder, “Huang He?” And still louder, while turning around and staring me in the eyes (while driving!), “Huang He!!!” And then Matt, with his vocabulary of 20 words says, “Maybe he means the Yellow River?” And he did. Too bad increased volume doesn’t increase my understanding!!

Post brief museum venture, we wandered through People’s Park. Every city has a People’s Park, and this one had no shortage of adorable old people exercising and playing instruments, and children toddling around on squeaky shoes. I finally engaged in an activity I had been eyeing: painting a giant plastic-y sticker. One buys an outline of a picture (mine was a fish with a big tail) done in black plastic, and has a seat at a miniature table on a miniature stool (too small for Matt!) to fill in the spaces with colorful goo. Immediately, I attracted a crowd, ranging from elementary school boys who introduced themselves as “Ja-kuh,” “Sa-ham,” and one too shy to speak, a grandfather who took a seat next to me to keep an eye on the proceedings, and a baby who kept shaking the table. I filled in my fish with rainbow scales, and had him baked for three minutes to plasticize the goo into a thick window sticker.

After a lunch of conveyer belt sushi (what a concept!!), a tea set purchase (celadon green with matching baijiu cups!), and the careless abandonment of my ATM card in an ATM (don’t worry, everything’s ok!) we boarded our train for the five-hour trip (this time first class soft seat which includes foot and head rests!) back to Beijing.

As always, the fun doesn’t end until you’ve set foot back in your own apartment. The train station is a short cab ride away from the subway. We waited in the taxi queue and quickly boarded a cab. The following is a translation of the conversation between the cab driver and me:
CD: To where?
KB: To the subway.
CD: Which subway?
KB: The closest subway.
CD: The closest subway? Which station?
KB: The close one. The museum station. (The station is called “Military Museum.” I’m lucky to have remembered the word for museum, and have no idea how to say military!)
CD: The museum station? Which museum?
KB: I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say it. It’s the closest subway station!!
CD: Oh. That one. Why didn’t you just take a bus?!
KB: (Sigh.)

Posted by ucpegasus 05:00 Archived in China Comments (1)


In which I obsessively make pros and cons lists, and visit the zoo!

Things I love about China (in no particular order): the language, written and spoken; hot pot; my favorite restaurant in Hua Zhuangr; lamb chuanr; Muslim noodles; food in general; the bicycle culture; Beijing historical sights; the Great Wall; my easy teaching schedule; my students; fresh veggies for really cheap; ridiculously good service at restaurants, cheap shopping; milk tea; ridiculous things that happen to me constantly; my language partner; inventive cooking that occurs with one stove burner and no convenience food;

Things I miss about the U.S. (also in no particular order): proximity to my family; easy communication when I need to get things done; grocery stores filled with everything I could possibly want; canned goods; stoves with more than one burner; refrigerators that hold more than a gallon of milk; bicycling for fun; jiu-jitsu; normal clothes in normal sizes; quiet; nature; camping and hiking; movies at the theater; snow; boys to date; a larger pool of people with whom I might share interests; Thanksgiving and Christmas; a job with a purpose; religious options; taking baths; reliability of utilities; medical and dental care; clean air;

To be continued…

The stress of a job search in the U.S. from overseas is beginning to take its toll on me. I mean, I’m starting to go out drinking and dancing on Friday nights. Honestly, this is a new low. Actually, it’s quite fun. Last weekend, we enjoyed some real pizza in the city before hitting two clubs playing 80s music (Dear Love Shack, Three times is enough. Cease and desist. Love, Katie). Tonight, we’re going to enjoy some Persian food before salsa dancing (Can one fake salsa dancing? I hope so.). I learned that I need a Connecticut teaching license BEFORE being considered for any positions, and the same may be true in Massachusetts. My Texas license may be converted to either of these out of state licenses (a temporary one, anyway, that may later require me to pass a test or two and take additional classes!) for a hefty fee. I’m pursuing this now, but have already spent so much time on applications that may have been filed in the circular file. I’ve looked into some private schools, but most of them just nauseate me (“At The Old Halls School, we pride ourselves on developing charm and character in young women, especially through education in equitation and horse management.” I made that up.), and require that I also serve as a “dorm parent.” But I press on. Now I understand why people don’t leave China: the inconvenience of leaving is just slightly greater than that of staying!!

Spring seems to have arrived. I’ve packed away the long underwear and the winter jackets and am enjoying my bicycle rides into town. I’ve picked up a few extra hours each week tutoring a student at the local university in English, which is a great learning experience for me (“The, th! Th! Th! Not ‘Zuh!’”) and a little extra cash. A new bubble tea place has opened in the Village, and I’m quite sure I’m their biggest customer. They’re still baffled that I can’t read the menu.

Last weekend, I went to the zoo with a colleague of mine. I was afraid that the zoo would be cold war style: tiny cages of unhappy, pacing large mammals. And there was a bit of that when it came to the elephants, lions and tigers. Predictably, the pandas had enormous enclosures and associated crowds, but the monkey, lemur and other small mammal exhibits were also quite well done. There was a strange chicken and pheasant exhibit featuring some weird birds I’ve never seen before. And they sold hot dogs. Having a bit (ahem) of a hangover, this just sounded delicious. And so Matt bought a “bacon hotdog.” Upon biting into it, he realized that it contained bacon, toppings and no hot dog. I then had the following conversation (in Chinese, with the exceptions of the worlds “bacon” and “hot dog” which I do not know in Chinese.)

Me: Excuse me, we have a little problem. His bacon hot dog does not have a hot dog.
Man: Oh, you only choose one meat.
Me: But the sign says “Bacon hot dog.”
Man: Oh. You just get bacon.
Me: You can’t call it a bacon hot dog if there’s no hot dog.
Man: (Confused look)
Me: So you should give us a hot dog. Please.
Man: (Confused look at colleagues) Ok.

And a hot dog (on a stick!) was handed over and nestled into the bun, next to the bacon. And all was well. I love communication. (Note to self: look up words for “bacon” and “hot dog.”)

Posted by ucpegasus 20:38 Archived in China Comments (0)

Fall, Winter and Spring Festival

In which I probably haven't proofread as much as I should...


I suppose after more than a year of living in a strange country, life beings to feel less like an epic adventure and comedy of errors and more like, well, life. I’ll admit: there is still plenty of adventure and error abounds, but it feels like less to write home about. My English has gotten a little worse, my Chinese quite a bit better. I can navigate just about anywhere in the city without trouble, and obtain food with greater accuracy. I can even read a little! I’ve been remiss in recording the details, so I’ll recap below:

The fall semester brought some minor job unhappiness for me. My classes were huge (35 to 38 students per class), and my classroom didn’t have enough furniture for all the students. The room itself was in bad repair (doors that got stuck alternately and made me fear that one day we’d be trapped inside, computer problems, teacher’s podium collapsing…). I was so overwhelmed with my 150 students: I didn’t know everyone’s name, they had no place to sit, I avoided lab because one teacher just can’t watch so many kids. The kids felt unloved because of lack of personal attention, and I felt like a bad teacher because I couldn’t give them more.

Fortunately, this spring semester, the school managed to hire a second chemistry teacher who took half my students!! Now with classes of 25, each gets a slightly bigger share of my attention, and all are thriving. It’s fun to be in the classroom again, and I’m excited about going to lab!!

There have been plenty of adventures around the city: sight-seeing, dining (most notably: 1001 Nights which is an Indian place featuring fantastic belly dancing and hookahs [sheeshas, nargilas…]), drinking and dancing. I’ve learned (or relearned) that I’m quite finished with “the nightlife” sometime between midnight and 1:00 am, thank you very much, and why isn’t anyone else ready to go?! I’ve also been sick with the same snotty, phlegm-y cold four times since November. The American cold medicine ran out during the first iteration. No problem, I thought, I’m rarely sick! Iterations two and three brought misery and some Chinese herbal stuff that really does nothing (but really, shouldn’t stuff that vile tasting have some effect?). Finally, for round four, I’ve stolen Tylenol cold stuff from Aaron. It’s fantastic.

Halloween and Thanksgiving brought little apartment-wide get-togethers in the common room featuring baked goods (chocolate-pumpkin swirl brownies, and then apple and pumpkin pie from me) and a smorgasbord of good old American fare from the crowd. One enterprising teacher turned his box of school-gifted apples into hard cider. Not bad!

This winter has brought much more snow than Beijing has seen in a long time. Most recently, we received about three inches, causing maintenance workers to use actual shovels for snow removal, rather than brooms! Actually, the “shovels” were pieces of plywood nailed to 1” x 1” fence post and just moved the top layer of snow allowing the bottom inch to be compacted into ice, but I do appreciate their effort. Then I learned that the big “snow storm” was a gift from The Party. Faced with recent draught, they used the Olympic trick of seeding the clouds to provide some pretty white flakes for us. Thanks, Beijing!!

Late December brought the best Christmas gift I could hope for: a visit from Sylvie!! In a high-energy whirlwind of travel, we visited the Sacred Way, Ding Tomb, made pork pie and chocolate bear cookies, went to Xi’an where we visited the bell and drum towers, the terracotta warriors, the Great Mosque, and ate all the Muslim food we could get our hands on, tried lychee, durian and dragonfruit, visited Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, sang karaoke, and ate as much Beijing food as we could get our hands on. Sylvie is the best traveler I have ever met: I didn’t hear her complain once, even when travel was long or plans didn’t go exactly as expected. She’ll eat anything and appreciates everything. I had a blast and I’m sure she did too. Hopefully, it’ll be enough to get her through to summer vacation!

For much of the fall semester, I had been trying to figure out what to do next year. I applied, and was granted a telephone interview for, a job as a program director with TFA. The pursuit of that position was all consuming for quite some time, and an enormous letdown when I learned that I wasn’t invited for an in-person interview. It’s a blow to the ego, certainly, but also the impetus I needed to search for other possibilities. But, as soon as I found out I didn’t have to fly to the U.S. for an interview, plans were rapidly made for the Spring Festival trip of a lifetime!

After Sylvie left, I had only to review with my students and then proctor five days of exams before the Spring Festival began. Natalie, Joe, Lisa and I threw together a loose itinerary for Southeast Asia, and obtained visas for Vietnam, and we were off into the sparkly sea of temples and motorbikes that is Indochina.

Natalie and I were unable to obtain train tickets for the Beijing to Kunming, Yunnan, leg of our trip (Spring Festival is one of the largest mass migrations of people on the planet, comparable in scale to the pilgrimage to Mecca), so we decided to fly. Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring, was a little on the chilly side at first, but then warmed up to a very agreeable 60 to 65 degrees during our stay. We visited a fabulous flower and bird market. The variety of orchids for sale among assorted green greenery in January was just phenomenal. The blue sky and mild weather made me reconsider life in Beijing and left me yearning to live in a non-long underwear location! We visited the Stone Forest, national/UNESCO park with some pretty fancy geology. Rocks jut straight up from the ground in lovely formations, similar to Zhangjiajie World Heritage Site in Hunan. We spent a lovely day wandering (sans jackets!) among the stones, and hiking up to a pagoda to take in the view. Much of the park is left fairly unmolested, with only foot paths installed (here, I stop to ponder my definition of “unmolested,” and its significant change in the past nineteen months.) Other parts of the park feature manicured lawns and man-made lakes and are landscaped. After the gray sky and naked trees of Beijing, both appealed to me. The trees and shrubs were flowering, the bees buzzing, and the sky blue at the Stone Forest. We also spent a lovely day in one of the most fantastic markets I’ve yet visited in China. This market was enormous, and featured everything you might want to buy and lots you didn’t yet know you needed. I found a dumpling charm for my cell phone, barrettes, a cute purse for myself and one for Sylvie (as of yet, still lost in the mail!), and some lovely ribbon sewn onto ethnic clothing in Yunnan. Natalie and I also visited two museums: one on the ancient history and culture of Yunnan province, and one on the ethnic minorities of the region. The view of Yunnan from the outside (from the cities of the north, I suppose) seems to be that Yunnan is less sophisticated, even “backwards” compared to the more urban, cosmopolitan areas. The aim of these museums was to counter this thinking by presenting evidence of early bronzework and other technological innovations and some really fantastic ethnic clothing and jewelry (the early Yunnanese, it seems, were really, really into big bronze animal-form-embellished belt buckles). The culinary specialty in Kunming is "Across the Bridge Noodles" which is a big bowl of steaming broth into which you stir thick rice noodles, raw meat or eggs and veggies and stir until cooked. We also ate "milk skin" which is dry and very, very tough and was grilled and spread with something sweet; I had sweetened condensed milk on mine. While in Kunming, I actually saw a chicken in a sack (with a hole cut out for its head) being carried through the town square. This is a relief because I'd been making "chicken sack" jokes for a year and a half without actually seeing one!

After a few days in Kunming, Joe and Lisa flew in to meet us. The next day, we boarded a sleeper bus for Laos. The sleeper bus will certainly be one of my most enduring memories of this trip. The bus held two tiers of bunks: three across, with two extremely narrow aisles. The very back of the bus featured no aisle, with five bunks across, immediately adjacent to one another. I was lucky (!) enough to get a middle bunk near the back. Each bunk is exactly my dimensions: about 21 inches across and five and a half feet long. Your feet go in a box under the head of the person in front of you, so the head end of your bed is elevated slightly to accommodate the feet of the person behind you. Each bunk has a little metal basket in which to place your shoes and big bag of stuff to do (yes, Mom, I still pack a big bag of stuff to do!) while you ride (and this ride was 30 Sesame Streets or 60 Mr. Roger’s Neighborhoods. Just for reference). We had bought tickets to the border of China and Lao. Having settled in (Joe in the “rumpus room” in the back) we were off.

The trip was surprisingly smooth on the Chinese side, but included lots of random stops in the middle of the night; some were for unknown reasons and a few were to pick up more passengers. I slept a little, existed in the bizarre Purgatory between reality and LaLa Land for hours on end, and peed in a dark corner of a bus depot. In the morning we left China, which included a search of our bags by the PLA. I had locked my bag, and they made a big show of having me unlock it (much to the amusement of the Muslim ladies on board) while they did a thorough search. Once at the border, the bus driver indicated that, since everyone needed a visa, the bus would wait at the border, and we could take the same bus all the way to Luang Prabong, which was our intended destination, anyway. Then into Laos, where we got our visas in about five minutes in a tiny shack by the side of the dirt road. Laos doesn’t use sticker-type visas, and instead employs a friendly English-speaking man to use SEVEN stamps covering one whole page of my passport. Then, at a second window, three more stamps are used to indicate date of entry. And then I brushed my teeth over a ditch.

The road in Laos was MUCH bumpier than in China, and we all got smacked on the head by the ceiling quite a few times. The bus had no bathroom, and we stopped every three or four hours to pee and eat overpriced middle-of-nowhere side of the road meals. I passed the time reading, snacking, dozing and staring out the window. Quite the experience!

Luang Prabang is quite touristy, but warm and friendly, with markets, night markets, BeerLao (much darker than Yanjing) and fruit shakes. There’s a lot of residual French culture including architecture and food, and also significant Buddist influence with many wats and orange robe-clad monks walking everywhere. Lao food is fresh and delicious with limes, lemongrass, sticky rice, and coffee with sweetened condensed milk. We toured a temple, got pedicures, visited the night market, and ate and ate… Our guesthouse’s balcony overlooked the Mekong, and we sat outside at night, counting geckos, drinking BeerLao and playing cards as the river faded with the sun. We took a boat on the Mekong to visit caves full of tiny to huge Buddist statues and stopped at a tiny village full of women weaving beautiful textiles. We watched sunset from a temple set above the city on a hill, and we hiked to a waterfall and moon bear preserve. I also had a fantastic $4 massage in a second-story room filled with soft light and white flowy curtains and the most comfy pjs to wear. We ate an absolutely amazing French dinner including three appetizers, four main courses, two desserts and a bottle of wine for a cool one million kip ($100) total. Definitely one of the best meals in my life for far less money than one would expect to pay just about anywhere else on earth!

From Luang Prabong, we took a bus to Vang Vieng, a village of “spring breaker” type backpackers in the center of northern Laos. Tubing on the Nam Song River was great fun (though the river isn't exactly fast, and once the sun began to descend it was distinctly cold) and every 10 meters, there's a bar complete with enormous rope swing and slide and loud reggae and more spring breakers. You float over and act stupid until you float to the next bar. We mostly floated past the bars, observing the madness and gazing at the lovely surroundings (the mountains are actually quite beautiful). In town, every second café plays episodes of Friends for their stoned patrons and roadside stands make any kind of crepe (banana chocolate, lemon sugar…) you could possibly want. It was bizarre, and totally unlike Luang Prabang. If I return, I'll go for some eco-tourism (hiking, kayaking, rock climbing) outside of town. From Vang Vieng, we went to Vientiane, the capital of Laos for one night. We spend a very lazy afternoon drinking BeerLao by the river and watching a spectacular sunset. Guesthouses are hard to come by there, and we had to settle for something that looked like (and was later confirmed to be) a former flop house. When we checked in, it looked moderately clean but very, very basic (ok, prison-like) but when we returned after our evening of drinking (and more French food...yay colonialism!!) we noticed a few warnings regarding bed bugs penciled on the wall which turned out to be very, very true. So we spent the worst night of our lives (I'm not exaggerating here) scratching, tossing, turning, applying DEET, listening to the mice in the walls, and wandering around pitifully. By morning (and after only about one and a half hours of sleep), I had three ENORMOUS welts on my face (my left eye was swollen half shut) and decorative red blotches all over my arms and legs. Natalie fared a little better, and it turned out that Lisa and Joe didn't have bed bugs at all. Never...again. Never.

The next morning, we flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Air Vietnam (who serve a full meal of Soilant Green and Soilant Pink [Soilant Pink is fish]), breezed through Cambodia customs, and took a bus to Siem Reap. The bus ride was beautiful - plains broken up by palms, little farms with woven houses on stilts with families sitting on tables in the yard eating meals, water buffaloes, dooryard ponds full of blooming lotus, bony cows, swarms of school children in their navy and white uniforms (including the uniform sarong!). It was lovely, and relaxing. Siem Reap definitely caters to the foreign visitor of Angkor Wat, and has a large strip of fancy restaurants, bars, beautiful hotels and a fun night market. We found a lovely family-run guesthouse and enjoyed some Khmer food for dinner (a cross between hot pot and Korean BBQ, fish stew, garlic prawns, and coconut shakes. We drank a LOT of coconut shakes!).

We spent two days wandering Angkor Wat. We hired a tuktuk (moto-pulled carriage) for both days. The second day stayed for sunset. The entire complex is named for the main temple, but is actually a spread of dozens of structures, plus more in outlying areas. The wats are each spectacular...the variety of building shapes and carvings and layouts of inner and outer courts is just stunning. I really can't describe it...have a look at my photos! The wat area is enormous and we tuk tuked from wat to wat, stopping for lunch and snacks, climbing stairs, and admiring the architecture and carved details. The surroundings are gorgeous including a huge diversity of trees full of singing birds and monkeys. On our second day, we came across a whole tribe of (two dozen?) monkeys, which were quite tame. We bought some bananas (the entrepreneurial spirit is pervasive - constantly people, including little kids, were trying to sell us things), and hung out with the monkeys for a while. One sat on my back while it ate its banana!!

After Siem Reap, we bussed back to Phnom Penh then on to Sianhoukville, on the coast. The beaches in Sihanoukville are the most picturesque I’ve visited in my short existence. The water is blue and bathwater warm with those stereotypical palm trees that lean out over the surf. We spent a few days just laying in lounge chairs, reading, swimming, and eating whatever was hawked from chair to chair on the beach. My favorite was deep fried langoustines with salt, pepper and lime juice – the tails were huge and juicy.

Sihanoukville has an enormous population of ex-pats all catering towards the beach-going visitor crowd. And with that, comes prostitution. Every evening, the breakfast and lunch places would morph into brothel fronts with ladies calling out to Joe as we walked by. The joke was that, to us girls, the tuk-tuk drivers would yell, “Tuk-tuk, lady?” To Joe, “Tuk-tuk? Lady?”

Post absolute relaxation, we returned to Phnom Penh (yes, our third visit!). Quite the opposite of relaxing, Phnom Penh is quite crazy: streets crammed with flying motos, noise, but a nice wake-up after languishing on the beach. We visited the main Khmer Rouge school-turned-prison-turned-museum (the prison from which Cambodians were transported to the killing fields) for several hours; it was quite the somber experience, and helps to explain much of the country's psyche and culture and current state of affairs. The prison gave a needed insight to me on the recent history of the country and of the pain and suffering everyone now over the age of 35 endured. Khmer Rouge soldiers killed about one-third of the population through forced work in rice fields, starvation, disease and execution. The countryside is still sprinkled with landmines; it is quite obvious that the legacy of that regime lingers the daily lives of the Cambodian people.

After Phnom Penh, we boarded a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, and then a flight to Hanoi. Our flight was on JetStar Pacific, one of those JetBlue-style budget operations. It was delayed by an hour, featured no kind stewardesses, was the most cramped economy class I've ever seen, and had no free food or drinks, even water. Not even soilent fish. Anyway, it was better than taking a bus... We got into Hanoi at 11 pm, to a taxi driver who "couldn't find" the guest house we wanted to stay in and then took us to his friend's hotel which was a bit more money than we wanted to spend. This scam seems to be wide-spread, and we were quite powerless to stop it. Regardless, there were no bed bugs, so I deemed it a reasonable expense.

We stayed in the Old Quarter, with twisting narrow streets full of motor scooters and cyclos (three-wheeled bicycles with a cart seating two in front of the bicycle driver) and little shops selling iced and hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk, and fruit salad with tapioca and sweetened condensed milk, cheap draft beer, and pho (rice noodle soup with chicken or beef and fried donut things to dip in the broth). The weather was mild, not hot, and mosquito-free. Our most memorable dinner in Hanoi seafood hot pot (shrimp, mussels, fish, squid, eel, two kinds of noodles, spinach and other veggies). The seafood arrived arranged around the rim of the boiling pot of broth. We sat, happily cooking and sweating, until some wicked woman of unknown origin stocked over, instructed us menacingly in Vietnamese, and pushed the rest of our food into the broth. Now, as a resident of China, I’ve had time to develop hot pot idiosyncrasies: I do NOT like anyone to help. And I do not like a crowded hot pot. It did, however, still taste great... Lisa and I also enjoyed "violet glutinous rice wine,” a potent concoction, which is apparently the cheapest way to get accidentally drunk in Hanoi.

Speaking of drinking, Joe, Lisa and I spent a memorable night at a sidewalk café enjoying Bia Ha Noi on tap with a Vietnamese guy who didn’t speak any English. He did, however, try to play our card games and then teach us his. We settled on poker while I amused myself by trying to avoid getting poked by his gesticulations and lit cigarette.

Indochina without a solid itinerary doesn’t make for absolute relaxation. It did lead to extreme adventure, unexpected and delightful situations and fantastic memories.

Once back in Beijing, it’s been good to get back to “normal” life. Smaller classes have meant better times in the classroom for me. New colleagues have given rise to a new dynamic at work and socially. I’ve been continuing to pursue the question, “What should I do next year?” and may be arriving upon an answer.

Posted by ucpegasus 23:16 Archived in China Comments (2)

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